Southwestern-Inspired Cooking


Southwestern cuisine is one of the top two cuisines in which my husband and I indulge, tying with Indian for first place. It’s not an “ancient” cuisine, like French or Greek, but it is a fascinating fusion of food cultures.

Southwestern cuisine evolved from Mexican culinary influences, with Spanish settlers coming from Mexico into Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. It also developed from the cowboy culture and chuck wagon cookery in the Southwestern part of the United States. There are even aspects to it that are American Indian-based and influences from the Caribbean as well.

The reasons we love it, is that it utilizes most all of our favorite ingredients, specifically tomatillos, black beans, corn in all its forms, avocados, tomatoes, pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, and even fruits like mango and papaya. We love the seasonings as well – cumin, coriander, cilantro, plus the various chile peppers.

On any given day, without thinking, I throw together an ancho-marinated flank steak topped with adobo-spiced smoked tomatoes for an easy meal. Or a soup that combines black beans, posole, chipotle peppers, and lots of cilantro. Southwestern dishes are the most common in my kitchen because we love all of its inherent ingredients.

Being familiar with ingredients of specific cuisine allows you to create dishes without the use of cookbooks. There is more to Southwestern meals than using black beans and cilantro. Although that’s a start!

“Tex-Mex,” which is the combination of Texas and Mexican cuisines, is a term with which we’ve all become familiar, at least here in the states. Did you know that Texas is actually credited with the invention of fajitas, chili, and nachos? They’re actually not Mexican in origin like you’d think. I remember my first experience with Tex-Mex.

My “enlightenment” took place when I was interviewing with an oil company in Dallas, in 1978, post-college. During the interview process, I was taken out to lunch at a Mexican restaurant. I ordered taquitos. Based on the description, I expected something looking like a rolled up mini tacos. What I got on my plate were these overly deep-fried, cigar-shaped things that were inedible. No salad, salsa, or guacamole on the plate, which would have at least satisfied my hunger. I remember one of the men saying something like, “Not what you expected, huh?” I’m not really sure how he knew this, but I’m guessing I must have had a horrified look on my face! I’ve never been good at hiding reactions.

In any case, within a few weeks I moved to Dallas for this company, and spent the next couple of years learning about Tex-Mex, whether I wanted to or not. To this day, I don’t really like it. Sorry. I much prefer fresher, lighter Mexican food. It can still contain beans and meat and rice, it’s just that I prefer when they are complimented with fresher, lighter ingredients.

So that is one reason why I adore Southwestern cuisine. The flavors are spectacular, and the ingredients are fresh and vibrant.

After years of following recipes from my favorite Southwestern cookbooks, I realized I had the cuisine figured out. And I can say that because there are really no “rules.” In fact, there’s no bible of Southwestern cuisine.

To give you an idea of how it works, I will give you an entree, followed by its Southwestern counterpart. For example:

Chili, becomes Ancho-spiced Venison Chili with Anasazi Beans topped with Serrano Crema

Sea Bass, becomes Pepita-Crusted Sea Bass served with a Jicama-Cilantro Coleslaw

Mashed potatoes, becomes Adobo Corn and Goat Cheese Mashed Potatoes

Quesadillas, become Lobster and Asadero Enchiladas with Mango-Tomatillo Salsa

Chicken Soup, becomes Chipotle-Tomato Soup with Smoked Chicken and Pumpkin

Caesar Salad, becomes Grilled Quail on Greens with Polenta Croutons and a Jalapeno Caesar Dressing

Boiled Lobster, becomes Lobster on Quinoa and Roasted Corn Pilaf with Orange-Cider-Chipotle Sauce

Pot Pie, becomes Barbecued Guajillo Short Rib Pot Pie with a Masa Crust and Avocado Crema

And so forth. As you can see, a Southwestern twist can be put on any dish. It’s just a matter of using Southwestern ingredients.

Now, you might be asking where Mexican cuisine ends and Southwestern cuisine begins? I honestly don’t know the answer. Southwestern cuisine seems a little more modern, to me. The problem with Mexican cuisine for me personally, is the fact that I can’t get many of the ingredients, even living in south-central U.S.

Diana Kennedy wrote the bible of Mexican cuisine back in 1972 after living in Mexico for many years; she’s still considered the Julia Child of Mexico. Many people used to think that Mexican food was all about beans and rice, but Ms. Kennedy showed us otherwise. Mexican food can be very complex and diverse. And it can be fresh and vibrant as well.

I own Diana Kennedy’s “The Art of Mexican Cooking,” which was published in 1989, and have followed many recipes in that book. But often I was missing an ingredient or two – especially some of the unique chile peppers like the Chilhuacle, and specialty ingredients like huitlacoche and hoja santa. So it was challenging for me to not know how a specific dish was supposed to taste, especially something multi-layered like a mole, for example.

Well known for his expertise on Mexican cuisine, Rick Bayless has made Mexican cooking a little more available for the home cook, but he also uses many traditional Mexican ingredients in his cookbooks that I’ll probably never come across in my lifetime. Because, of course, his recipes are all about authentic Mexican food as well.

But every ingredient in Southwestern cooking, I can get my hands on. In fact, I can purchase most all of them in my local grocery store. This is another aspect to Southwestern cuisine that I like – its accessibility.

Here’s a list of ingredients to get you started. It’s simply a matter of utilizing a smattering of these ingredients and incorporate them into any kind of dish you’re making, whether it’s meatballs or a salad.

Nuts and Seeds: Almonds, Pine Nuts, Pecans, Sunflower Seeds, Pumpkin Seeds

Fruits: Passion Fruit, Papaya, Mango, Banana, Coconut, Guava, Citrus Fruits, Pineapple, Prickly Pear, Kumquat, Melons

Vegetables: Pumpkin, Cabbages, Jicama, Carrots, Bell Peppers, Corn, Tomatoes, Tomatillos, Avocado, Sweet Potatoes

Protein: All meats, Poultry, Game, Fish, Seafood, Chorizo

Grains: Rice, Wild Rice, Quinoa, Yellow and Blue Corn

Legumes: Black Beans, Anasazi Beans, Pinto Beans, Red or Kidney Beans

Dairy: Monterey Jack, Crema or Sour Cream, Goat Cheeses, Mexican cheeses

Seasonings: Cumin, Coriander, Cilantro (fresh coriander), Oregano, Achiote, Cayenne, Chile Peppers, fresh, dried, and smoked, Canned Chipotle in Adobo Sauce, Adobo

Sweets: Chocolate, Cinnamon, Cajete, Vanilla

Fresh Chile Peppers: Anaheim, Poblano, Jalapeno, Serrano, Fresno, Habanero, Banana, New Mexico, Cayenne

Dried Chile Peppers: Ancho, Pasilla, Guajillo, Chile de Arbol

Smoked Chile Peppers: Chipotle

Miscellaneous: Tortillas, both flour and corn, Tequila, Rum, Mexican Beer

This list of ingredients is not a complete list, but highlights the most important ingredients featured in Southwestern cuisines. Of course, I left off items like “lettuce” and “butter.”

I hope this post helps you out if you’re interested in venturing into the world of Southwestern cuisine, but don’t know where to start. And baby steps are fine. Southwestern cuisine isn’t all about sprinkling jalapenos all over every dish! In fact, it’s a very flavorful cuisine, but burning your mouth is not a requirement!

note: This post is not supposed to be a comprehensive study of the development of Southwestern cuisine, it’s just about my experience with it. In the near future I will post on Southwestern chefs who specifically developed and perfected the cuisine in my lifetime, and were inspirational to me as a home cook.

37 thoughts on “Southwestern-Inspired Cooking

  1. Living in Houston gives easy access to southwestern style food, and you can bet I love it. If you are interested, there is a very useable and wonderful cookbook Seasonal Southwest Cooking. It’s a good one!

  2. Having grown up in Southern CA, I’ve had my fare share of really good Mexican food, but spending time in Arizona and New Mexico, I find it’s completely different. It’s so interesting how various regions throughout the southwest treat Mexican cuisine and of course, there are regional favorites. I too, prefer the fresher, lighter flavors and when I’m home in San Diego, I seek out homemade tortillas. I can easily eat 3 or 4 in one sitting (they’re that good).

    • See, I’m with you. I moved from Santa Barbara California to Dallas Texas when I got that job way back in 1978. That’s what added to my horror of trying tex mex food for the first time. horror.

  3. Tomatillos are a specialty food here. And I JUST discovered ancho chilies, which I love – not tooo hot and so flavorful. Looking forward to hearing about the chefs you like, tomorrow :)

  4. Some facts … fantastic job … very interesting read. Not familiar with neither cuisines. We learn something new every day. *smile – thanks for this ride. *smile

  5. Very nice post, Mimi! Looking forward to the next one…. I am also quite fond of Southwestern food, although I usually have to skip the garlic and reduce the onions. But the spices and ingredients like adobo, tomatillos, pumpkin seeds, I find them spectacular!

  6. Very informative post Mimi! I know it is very difficult to find these ingredients where you live and now imagine my horror to find some of the most basic one’s here in Hong Kong. I adore tomatillos and saw them once in HK and snagged them all up to make a beautiful roasted tomatillo sauce for my chicken and now I have not seen it again. It is all about the fresh ingredients. Now that you have wet our palate behind the history of authentic cooking, now looking forward to reading some of your delicious recipes. Have a super week.

  7. It was really interesting to read this. I don’t really know the difference between Southwestern cooking and Mexican cooking and some of the ingredients are difficult to get here. For example I’ve never seen tomatillos. The flavours that you describe sound delicious though and I would love to try more out.

    • If you ever see tomatillos, buy a half a dozen. They are really different, tart and sweet at the same time. And as I mentioned, there’s really a huge overlap with Mexican and Southwestern. It’s all good!

  8. one of the things I MISS SO MUCH from ‘home’ is the abundance of EXACTLY this kind of food everywhere! Nowhere to be seen in Holland.. but Im constantly cooking it here :) Feel free to share some Pot Pie recipes :)!

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