HOUSTON — Any attempt to analyze the current Southwestern cooking trend is likely to wind up in a discussion as complicated as chili and as spicy as a jalapeno.
At least that is what happened at a Festival of Southwest Cookery that brought food and beverage executives, restaurateurs, chefs, food industry and media representatives to Houston. Their goal, during a weekend of lectures, panel discussions, cooking demonstrations and lavish Texan meals, was to learn more about a trend that has brought the Southwest into prominence and influenced menus across the country.
At the end of the festival, Steven Pyles, chef-owner of the Routh Street Cafe in Dallas, spoke for many when he said, "We didn't come up with any clear-cut definition of what we are doing, but we all agree it tastes good."
Traditional Texan chili, steaks, beans and barbecue were acknowledged but placed on the back burner while attention focused on the work of innovative young chefs like Pyles who have migrated to the state.
Their enthusiasm sometimes results in what a New Yorker, scanning the menu of one new wave restaurant, called "off the wall" combinations of ingredients. Recipes tend to be complex and plates sometimes are loaded with too many foods or components that don't relate.
"You have a lack of guidelines. There is no Escoffier telling us how to do things," commented Anne Lindsay Greer, a Dallas resident and author of the book, "Cuisine of the American Southwest."
This freewheeling approach inspired panelist Alison Cook, associate editor of Texas Monthly, to suggest using the question "Why?" as a guide rather than the "Why not?" that she blamed for overblown and unpalatable combinations.
Mexican cooking authority Diana Kennedy exhorted chefs to learn the classic formulas for traditional Mexican dishes before branching off on their own. However, the young Texan turks seem intent on carving out a new cuisine rather than emulating an old one. While they use Mexican ingredients, they also are influenced by the Creole and Cajun cookery of neighboring Louisiana, by old-time Texan cookery and by Texan products that include goat cheese, game meats and Gulf Coast seafood.
Basic to their larder are jalapeno and ancho chiles, red, green and yellow sweet peppers, tomatoes, tomatillos, cactus, beans, corn and cornmeal. Also important are sweet potatoes, pumpkins, papayas, mangoes, cherimoyas, Texas citrus and pecans. Other staples are Axis deer, quail, rabbit, game sausages, chorizo, oysters, crayfish, mussels, shrimp and redfish. Typical seasonings are cilantro, epazote, cumin, chili powder, garlic, tequila, tamarind and hot pepper sauce. Meats and fish are grilled over mesquite or smoked over corncobs. Wines produced in Texas may accompany the meal.
"There is nothing subtle about Southwestern food. The flavors are intense," said Greer. "People are into clear, crisp, clean, assertive textures, not just spicy food."
Chefs are feeling their way rather than making confident statements. "This dish I'm not sure about. I think it's OK," said Robert Del Grande as he began a demonstration of his black bean terrine. A Californian who is now chef-partner of Cafe Annie in Houston, Del Grande described the dish as "a cross between refried black beans, a pate and rillettes. " The beans are boiled with epazote, pureed, then "refried" with chorizo, fatback and bacon. The resulting thick puree is molded with a log of goat cheese tunneling through the center. When sliced, it presents the dramatic contrast of a white circle surrounded by a dusky trapezoid--a far cry from typical Mexican refried beans and cheese in appearance, but not in taste. The slices are lightly sauteed and presented with salsa and crisp fried chorizo on either side.
Even light foods acquire intensity in the hands of these chefs. The fresh green puree with which Del Grande thickens and tints a mussel soup includes serrano chiles along with cilantro, garlic and parsley. "It has the sort of punch you expect in this area," he said.
Mark Cox, executive chef of Brennan's Houston restaurant, works in the same bold vein. "What we like to do is put a lot of flavor in our food," Cox said. And he showed what he meant with a dinner at Brennan's that was a tour de force both for the kitchen and for those who made their way through the rich assortment of foods.
Marinated Snapper Fillets
It started with Red Snapper Gravlax, which came closer to ceviche than true Scandinavian gravlax. Cox blackened snapper fillets and marinated them with the dill that Scandinavians use for gravlax but also with a spicy seasoning mix, epazote, coriander, mustard seeds, juniper berries, apple and citrus juices. A spoonful of tomatillo relish, warmed up with jalapeno chile and Louisiana hot pepper sauce, went over the top of the sliced fish. A nice touch was creating a garnish from the papery outer skin of the tomatillo that is usually discarded. The tomatillo skin formed a little cup that held a green onion brush.