One of the first gurus of the evolution of Southwestern cuisine was Stephan Pyles. I don’t think he ever set out to become a guru, but it just happened. And I’m glad it did.
Stephan Pyles grew up in West Texas. His parents owned a truck stop and diner, and so Stephan grew up learning about barbecue and smoked meats, as well as Native Mexican foods like tamales. As a young man, he worked as the chef at The Bronx in the Oak Lawn part of Dallas. I was lucky enough to be living in walking distance to The Bronx back then. My friends and I especially loved his Sunday brunch.
I feel lucky that I became such a great fan of Chef Pyles at such a young age, because I’ve been able to follow him throughout his 30-plus year career. He opened up his first well-known Dallas restaurant in 1983, and I’ve been fortunate to dine at that and other restaurants of his in Dallas and Austin over the years. His latest in Dallas is spectacular, both visually and culinarily. It’s called Stephan Pyles.
It was because of his love for the food that he grew up on in West Texas, as well as all of the other regional cuisines of Texas, (it’s a big state), that Stephan expanded Southwestern cuisine to include the Texas way of cooking, to which he refers to as the “new Texas cuisine.” And he wrote his first book about it in 1993.
One Thanksgiving, I made a completely Southwestern meal from the cookbook. The girls were little then, and wanted no part of any lengthy holiday meal, so I designed the meal to suit our adult spicy tastes. I made a chorizo-corn stuffing for the turkey, on which I rubbed adobo-honey sauce, and served sweet potato enchiladas topped with tomatillo salsa and black bean-mango relish. I also remember making blue corn muffins with toasted pine nuts.
It is because of my being a fan of Stephan Pyles that I now have ancho chile paste, adobo, cilantro and poblano pestos, and many other Southwestern staples on hand year round in my pantry and freezer. This book is still a fabulous introduction to Southwestern cuisine, in my mind.
Now further west, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, there was a young man named Mark Miller who was on his own quest to popularize Southwestern cuisine. He opened up the famous Coyote Cafe in 1987. He also wrote a chile pepper book in 1991; it remains a fabulous reference for me.
Mark Miller was the one who taught me to call chile peppers by their name – chile peppers, which shouldn’t be confused with chili, the dish, aka chili con carne. I know, this is arguable. I even see chilli peppers, which might be a regional thing, but I’m going with the expert. And he is still the chile pepper expert.
Red Sage was the name of his restaurant in Washington, DC, which unfortunately I never got to. But I actually read this book cover to cover to my husband, while we were on a road trip. The book is fascinating, with in-depth stories about cowboys and Indians and the foods they foraged and ate. The recipes also spectacular.
Mr. Miller includes American Indian ingredients in Southwestern cuisine, which really makes sense. It was a huge culture of the Southwest of the United States. So I read, and we learned that jerky was the Indians’ energy bar. And we learned about huitlacoche, essentially truffles that grow on corn. And we learned about the Indians’ native ingredients, some with which we were familiar, like buffalo, masa, and pecans, but others like pigweed that we were not.
Some of the recipes I have made out of this cookbook include Spiced Pork Chops with Ancho-Blackberry Sauce, Chicken Quesadillas with Poblano Pesto, and Poblano Rellenos filled with Spinach and Goat Cheese. All were spectacular.
And then there was a third book in my possession back in the 80’s, that was also like a bible to me. It’s New Southwestern Cooking, by Carolyn Dille and Susan Belsinger, published in 1985.
It is less sophisticated than the other two cookbooks I discuss above. But there are many recipes from this book that I make repeatedly, which is not a common practice for me. One is a layered black bean dip, with goat cheese, cilantro, and green onions. It’s baked and served warm, and is so hearty and tasty. Another is artichokes baked with chorizo and cheese. And I’ll never forget the cajeta creme caramel recipe.
The book has a informative glossary of different chile peppers – fresh, dried, and smoked – as well as a primer on working with them.
There are other chefs who have driven the Southwestern bandwagon as well, like Dean Fearing,* but Pyles and Miller, and their cookbooks, made the hugest impact on me. They even wrote a book together, in fact, which I don’t own, called Tamales.
*If you ever are staying in downtown/uptown Dallas, go to Fearing’s, the restaurant, for dinner. His tortilla soup is a still popular signature dish. I’ve also had a wonderful brunch there as well.