Never in a million years did I ever think I’d buy a Tex-Mex cookbook, but that’s just what I did recently. I’m the proud owner of Amá, by Josef Centeno and Betty Hallock, published in 2019.
I need to explain. I moved from sunny Southern California, where I enjoyed “fresh” Mexican cuisine, to Dallas, Texas, in 1978 for my first professional job. One day colleagues invited me to lunch at a Mexican restaurant. There, I had my first taste of Mexican food as I never knew it. I ordered taquitos, after really struggling with the menu. I expected…… well, not what I got, which were deep-fried tortilla “cigars” and inedible.
One colleague leaned over to me, observing that I hadn’t really touched my lunch, and whispered, “Not a fan of Tex-Mex, are you?!” I had never before heard the term.
Obviously, Tex-Mex is a mixture of the cuisines of Mexico and Texas. I wouldn’t call it “fusion,” because it’s really it’s own kind of food. My first impression of it was that it was the opposite of fresh – no cilantro, avocados, fresh salsa and pico de gallo, just lots of fried food with no flavor.
Tex-Mex is the cuisine that chef Josef Centeno grew up with in San Antonio, Texas. From the cookbook, “It’s the food that fuels the delicious, inventive, cross-cultural dishes he serves at his (four) restaurants in Los Angeles. It’s the casual, irresitable food he cooks with his family. And now it’s the food you can cook at home, too. Tex-Mex was largely dismissed by the culinary elite in the 1970’s as inauthentic Mexican food. But that’s the point. The only thing authentic about Tex-Mex is that it isn’t authentic: It evolves and adapts.”
I guess I rejected it as well, but it wasn’t good. If you read the cookbook, the chef’s story and the food he grew up on were were very different than the deep-fried taquitos I first experienced. Chef Josef Centeno chose to honor the kind of food he grew up with, and opened Bar Amá in 2012 in Los Angeles, California, named after his great grandmother. Author Betty Hallock is a writer, editor, and cookbook author.
This recipe is in three parts – first, the home-made chorizo, which was Grandma Alice’s recipe. Secondly, the queso. The third essential element is Amá spice mix; recipe listed below, made from 8 different dried chile peppers.
This chorizo and queso combination is so good I might make it again for my birthday! This is Grandma Alice’s queso fundido, basically, which she served as a snack or for breakfast, because it was loved so much by the family. “Who doesn’t like a panful of melted cheese with crisped chorizo?” I do.
Grandma Alice’s Chipotle Chorizo
1 tablespoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
3 whole cloves
2 dried bay leaves
1 tablespoon chipotle chile powder
2 tablespoons Amá spice mix
2 tablespoons sweet paprika
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 1/2 pounds ground pork belly or ground pork shoulder
1 large garlic cloves, grated
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
Toast the cumin, coriander, and cloves in a small dry skillet over medium heat, stirring frequently, until fragrant, 1 to 1 1/2 minutes. Grind with a mortar and pestle or spice grinder to a fine powder.
With your fingers, break up the bay leaves into small pieces, add them to the spices, and grind to a fine powder. Add the chile powder, spice mix, paprika, salt, pepper, oregano, thyme and cinnamon, and grind until everything is well combined. Set aside.
Put the ground pork in a large bowl. Add the garlic, vinegar, and half of the spice mixture and, using gloved hands, work it into the pork. Add the rest of the spice mixture and work it into the pork until fully incorporated and the meat is red from the spices.
If you have the time, let the chorizo sit, covered, in the refrigerator overnight, so the flavors come together.
Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chorizo, breaking it up with a wooden spoon, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the meat is cooked through and crisped and the fat is rendered, 6 to 8 minutes. Use immediately or store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to 3 days, or in the freezer for up to 1 month.
1/2 cup Grandma Alice’s chipotle chorizo
4 ounces queso asadero, grated
1/4 cup finely chopped red onion
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh cilantro leaves
6 flour or corn tortillas, warmed in a skillet
Heat a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chorizo and heat until sizzling, about 2 minutes. Sprinkle the grated queso asadero over the chorizo, stir until the cheese starts to melt, and remove from the heat. Transfer to a serving dish.
Scatter the onion and cilantro on top and squeeze the lime over all. Serve immediately with the tortillas.
Amá Spice Mix
8 dried arbol chiles
5 guajillo chiles
5 dried New Mexico chiles
5 chipotle chiles
4 chiles negro
4 mulato chiles
4 pasilla de Oaxaca chiles
4 cascabel chiles
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
Following are the chile peppers in the ingredient list shown left to right.
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Put the chiles on a baking sheet and toast in the oven until fragrant and brittle, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.
Remove and discard the stems and seeds from the chiles. Tear the chiles into large pieces, grind to a fine powder in a spice grinder, and mix with the salt.
Store in an airtight container or sealed plastic bag at room temperature for up to 1 month or in the freezer for up to 1 year.