Southwestern Cooking Defined

What is southwestern cooking? That question has been asked of me many times over the years. And it is really hard to define what actually is meant by that term. Let me give you some examples. There is Mexican cooking from south of the border. There is Mexican cooking from north of the border. The two do not have that much in common. There is Tex-Mex, there is New Mexico cuisine, Santa Fe style cooking, California style and California nouvelle, there is cowboy cooking and nouvelle Mexican, If all these different cuisines can be reduced to a common denominator I would say it is this: corn, beans, rice, chile and squash. Whereas in pre-Columbian Europe only a few types of beans were known the original inhabitants of the American southwest had quite a few varieties of them. For example the Anasazi bean, found in centuries old middens. They also grew corn in quantities and probably tomatoes, although I suspect the tomato to have been introduced into this region by the Europeans. It is more of a South American item. The native Americans also had lots of different squashes and gourds. Another item high on their list was the pine-nut or pinion nut. Pinion forests literally cover the southwest like a blanket above a certain elevation. 3500 ft come to mind. They also used the nuts gathered from the Mesquite trees that grow in abundance. Another favorite, still being used today, is the prickly pear, a fruit of a certain cactus. It has to be handled in a careful manner because of its sharp spines or needles. A surprisingly large number of herbs were in use from the exotic bubble gum plant and the epazote to the more conventional equivalents of sage, rosemary, lavender, oregano and mint. We now have a fusion cuisine that uses a lot of the original produce and some products not originally found here. I therefore call all of the above mentioned cuisines southwestern cooking. Personally, I do a lot of my spice and herb shopping in Mexican markets. Not only are they fresher and cheaper, they also come in a lot more varieties.

Speaking of “epazote”. I love to use it in my bean dishes. I grow it myself in a pot in the backyard. That herb gives beans that distinctive “Mexican” flavor.