Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Cookbook Review: The Tex Mex Cookbook by Robb Walsh

I'm pretty lax when it comes to reviewing cookbooks on Chop Onions, Boil Water. I don't know why, it is surely easier than creating, tinkering, preparing, photographing and writing about new recipes. Even when I do get around to reviewing cookbooks I tend to be a little tardy. So tardy in fact, I think one of the most "recent" books I've reviewed here was out of print when I reviewed it. That doesn't change my opinion of it though, it was/is a great cookbook and I love and still use it (I could tell you what the title is and put a link here, but that gets me less click-throughs on my humble Google Adsense account and Chop Onions, Boil Water is, as of yet, a mostly non-paying endeavor. You'll find it easily enough if you look for it).

All that said, it should surprise no one that the cookbook I am about to review is six years old. I've been meaning to pick up The Tex-Mex Cookbook for some time since I first came across it. I've checked it out online, picked it up in the bookstore and gave it all the preliminary research I do with anything I buy, I've just been late in pulling the trigger on the purchase, well, until this past Sunday when I decided it was time to buy!

Before I offer you my review, let's see what the publisher has to say about The Tex-Mex Cookbook:

"Join Texas food writer Robb Walsh on a grand tour complete with larger-than-life characters, colorful yarns, rare archival photographs, and a savory assortment of crispy, crunchy Tex-Mex foods.

From the Mexican pioneers of the sixteenth century, who first brought horses and cattle to Texas, to the Spanish mission era when cumin and garlic were introduced, to the 1890s when the Chile Queens of San Antonio sold their peppery stews to gringos like O. Henry and Ambrose Bierce, and through the chili gravy, combination plates, crispy tacos, and frozen margaritas of the twentieth century, all the way to the nuevo fried oyster nachos and vegetarian chorizo of today, here is the history of Tex-Mex in more than 100 recipes and 150 photos.

Rolled, folded, and stacked enchiladas, old-fashioned puffy tacos, sizzling fajitas, truck-stop chili, frozen margaritas, Frito(TM) Pie, and much, much more, are all here in easy-to-follow recipes for home cooks.

The Tex-Mex Cookbook will delight chile heads, food history buffs, Mexican food fans, and anybody who has ever woken up in the middle of the night craving cheese enchiladas."

Dang, I wish I could write like that! I LOVE The Tex-Mex Cookbook for a number of reasons all of which I will tediously list below (in no particular order because that would take extra effort):

1.) Genre Defining: It clarifies exactly what Tex-Mex cuisine is. Walsh does this by delving into the history and cultures of the region and exploring how the food was influenced. He also cites literary instances in which Mexican authorities and authors draw culinary and cultural lines between Mexican cuisine and Tex-Mex cuisine (usually in derisive terms - Silly snobs!). All this is important because a lot of food that most people would consider their favorite "Mexican" dishes are in fact not Mexican at all but uniquely AMERICAN. This will no doubt irritate my foreign friends which always pleases me. Sorry guys but the Good 'Ol U$A has touched your lives yet again! Tee hee : )

2.) The Recipes: Considering that this is an historical overview AND a cookbook, there are still PLENTY of great recipes in here (over 100 genuine ones according to the cover!). Traditional ones, famous ones, standards and even a few new-fangled recipes to get your head into. You get yourself through most of the recipes in The Tex-Mex Cookbook and you're likely going to be your region's authority on the subject and pretty popular with your family and friends!

3.) Content, Design and Layout:
I like the way The Tex-Mex Cookbook is designed and laid out. Which is saying something because there really aren't any photos of the food from the recipes which is usually a deal-killer for me. When perusing cookbooks I'm more often inclined to immediately put a cookbook down if it doesn't offer full color images of most of the recipes. The Tex-Mex Cookbook however, has been designed and laid out in such a way that the editorial content, the recipes and the ancillary information and photos kind of pull you along or spur your imagination regarding the information and recipes in question. In this aspect The Tex-Mex Cookbook succeeds (at least for me) where just about every other cookbook of this type has failed in the past.

4.) The History: As someone who has to try and write interesting things about food, I often find myself delving into the history of many of the foods I prepare. The info is usually interesting and Robb Walsh does a great job handling the history of the cuisine itself using a plethora of era-relative photographs and a matter-of-fact writing style that gets right to the point and brings the history to life. Exactly the opposite approach of what I am doing with this review.

5.) The Canary Islands: Walsh explains how immigrants from the Canary Islands may have been instrumental in the evolution of Tex-Mex food. Especially in the development of chili and it's cumin-rich wonderfulness.

6.) Fried Pork Skin: I like the photo of that guy deep frying an entire pork skin on page 124.

7.) Go Tamales!: At one time tamales were more popular and more prevalent than hot dogs and hamburgers - ON THE STREETS OF CHICAGO!

8.) The Frito Bandito:
The real story of the scandal regarding the diminutive little gun-toting Mexican that topped my pencils when I was in grade school.

I could go on and on, but who's really going to read this? Hell, even if they start it, fewer still will finish the review to this point.

So, The Tex-Mex Cookbook by Robb Walsh? How do I rate it? Highly! I love it, it's great. It gets the Chop Onions, Boil Water seal of approval. If you are interested in Tex-Mex cuisine and "Mexican" food, this is at the very least your starting point. If you're creatively cuisine-errific, The Tex-Mex Cookbook may be the only book you may ever need on the subject. I love this book, buy it today, before it is out of print like the other one.

The Tex-Mex Cookbook by Robb Walsh (Softcover: 267 pages; Publisher: Broadway Books; ISBN: 9780767914888)

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Recipe: Shrimp Mozambique (Camarao Mocambique)

So...just how does a recipe from Mozambique end up in the Portuguese section of Chop Onions, Boil Water? You probably don't care, but I'm going to tell you anyway because if I didn't, all the space below the period at the end of this sentence would be white and I just can't have that.
This recipe begins way back in 1498 when the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama visited Mozambique. Apparently he liked what he saw, communicated it, and subsequent "explorers" visited the country and established settlements for trading and waging war against, and enslaving the uppity locals in a brutal feudalism that eventually evolved into a less-brutal-but-no-more-attractive colonial government. This of course led to conflicts for independence and fast forward to 1975 when the good people of Mozambique finally won their self-governance. So there's your Portugal-Mozambique connection.

Now lets make the Portugal-Mozambique-Recipe connection: Way back yonder when the Europeans were running around "discovering" people and cultures that already knew they were there, they started bringing back things they begged, bought or stole from the inhabitants of "THE NEW WORLD". Useful things like corn, potatoes, gold, captives, etc., and for the purposes of this story: chilies. Some of those chili seeds that were brought to Europe from the New World by European explorers, then made their way to Africa with Portuguese traders. There the peppers were spread by man and nature and flourished all over the continent and the local cuisine.

One small dried variety of these pepper pods called "Piri-Piri" by the local folks in Mozambique (sounds like "peedy-peedy" in Portuguese but means "pepper-pepper" in the African Swahili language), were used in making hot sauces and dishes, one of which would evolve into the recipe below. Portuguese, inhabitants, travelers, military men and mercenaries fell in love with the dish and brought it back with them to the homeland. Other Portuguese traveling abroad later would bring this dish to American shores, specifically the shores of Southeastern New England where the recipe is hugely popular. That's my story and I'm sticking to it until I learn otherwise.

See? Portugal-Mozambique-Recipe-America-Internet-The World.

This dish is great for group dining. It is rich, spicy and tangy. Be sure to have plenty of rice or a good crusty bread around because the resulting sauce is too good to pass up!

Incidentally, this is also prepared as a chicken dish using grilled tenders or breast meat sliced similarly.

Shrimp Mozambique

15 to 20 saffron threads
1/4 cup of water
1/4 cup of Portuguese olive oil
2 lbs. shrimp (uncooked, shell on)
10 cloves of garlic (coarsely chopped)
1/2 bottle dry white wine (Portuguese vinho verde is EXCELLENT for this dish)
1 tsp. colorau (colorau is Portuguese paprika. You can substitute sweet Spanish paprika or regular paprika in that order)
2 Tbs hot crushed pepper (the red wet kind)
How ever many dashes of Portuguese piri-piri you like (recipe below) or your favorite red hot sauce (Frank's© or Tabasco©).
2-3 Goya® seasoning packets (seafood type)
Juice from one lemon
1 stick of butter
1/2 cup fresh parsley (chopped, loosely packed)
Salt and pepper to taste
A good crusty bread or some rice

Put the saffron in the water and let steep overnight.

Place a deep saucepan on medium-high heat, when the pan warms, add the olive oil. When oil begins to shimmer add the shrimp and sauté until they just turn pink.

Remove them from the pan with a slotted spoon and keep the juices and oil in the pan. Put the shrimp aside and keep them warm.

Add the garlic to the pan and sauté for 2-3 minutes. DO NOT BROWN OR BURN THE GARLIC IT WILL GET BITTER.

Add the saffron and water, wine, paprika, crushed pepper, hot sauce, Goya seasoning and lemon juice. Bring this mixture to a boil, adjust to a lively simmer and allow it to reduce and thicken slightly.

Return the shrimp to the pan and continue simmering, stirring frequently for about 2-3 minutes.

Add the butter to the pan stirring frequently. Once butter melts, stir one more time, remove from heat and adjust salt and pepper to taste.

Garnish well with chopped parsley and serve over rice or by itself with a good crusty bread for dipping in the sauce which you will want to do again and again and again.

Piri-Piri Sauce

2 to 6 hot chili peppers (like Thai bird's eye or Szechuan peppers)*
1 pinch red pepper flakes
1 tsp of coarse sea salt
1 cup Portuguese olive oil
1/3 cup cider vinegar

De-stem but do not de-seed the peppers and then chop them coarsely (Wash your hands afterward and be careful not to touch your eyes fool!).

Combine the chopped peppers, red pepper flakes, salt, oil and vinegar in a bowl and mix together well. Then transfer to a suitable vinegar dispenser jar and allow to steep for a day or two.

Shake well before use.

Piri-Piri is great on a lot of different foods. Even shrimp that has been simply sauteed, broiled or boiled.
*If you want a mild sauce use less, if you want a fiery sauce use more.