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Books on New Mexican Food Detail a Variety of Approaches : The Unusual Cuisine Is a Blend of Elements From Several Cultures

January 09, 1986|BARBARA HANSEN | Times Staff Writer

New Mexico's unique cuisine blends Indian, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo cookery with dashes of seasoning from a wide range of other cultures.

Browsing in New Mexican markets, one is intrigued by such regional foods as blue cornmeal, dried corn kernels called chicos, sprouted wheat flour, sopaipilla mix and the state's famous chiles, whole, powdered and in seasoning mixes. A few years back, it became a fad for baking enthusiasts to build copies of the beehive-shaped pueblo Indian horno (oven) in their yards. More recently, such New Mexican specialties as blue corn tortillas and sopaipillas have become prominent in the contemporary Southwestern cooking trend.

In the last few years, a number of cookbooks devoted to New Mexican food have been published or, in the case of one, reissued. Four of these come from New Mexico. The fifth and most recent is Huntley Dent's scholarly and entertaining "The Feast of Santa Fe" (Simon & Schuster: $16.95). Dent writes so colorfully of New Mexican food that his book is a pleasure to read even if one has no desire to cook. Literature and history figure in his approach. Dent's recipe for bean salad, for example, is headed by a reference to that same dish as described in Willa Cather's New Mexican novel, "Death Comes to the Archbishop."

The Old Ways

Dent knows the old ways of cooking. He also acknowledges convenience products and the food processor so that his book is practical for modern cooks. He even makes it possible for the reader to produce tamale dough in five minutes, using the processor and instant masa. The recipe is a fascinating one. The tamales aren't stuffed with meat. Instead, the dough is spiced with cloves and cinnamon, flavored with cheese and dotted with pecans. To make the procedure even easier, the tamales are steamed in foil wrappers rather than corn husks, which take more effort to prepare and fold.

In an effort to resurrect old flavors, Dent presents a rundown of current cheeses that recapture the taste of goat and sheep cheeses once made around Santa Fe. California goat cheese "makes a wonderfully strange stuffing for enchiladas," he writes. He also suggests sprinkling it over tacos and tostadas for intriguing flavor.

Dent is an innovator, willing to toss tamales unorthodoxly in butter if it fits the menu better than a conventional sauce. Amenable to all tastes, he tells how to adapt his New Mexican chili recipe to Texas standards, and he tolerates the addition of California-style garnishes such as sliced olives, chopped onion, sour cream and grated cheese, although he says they are unnecessary.

Dent is a chatty writer and a philosopher who understands that cookery is a fantasy world for many. Writing about hobbyists who stock their ultramodern kitchens with humble clay pots for beans and other utensils that are authentic but not really necessary, he says, "I always picture such cooks standing before their four-burner stoves with microwave and warming oven, the processor humming in the distance, but thinking in their imaginations that they are in fact barefoot and wearing sombreros."

A Revised Guide

In 1968, long before chefs made the Southwest fashionable, Ronald Johnson wrote "An Aficionado's Guide to Southwest Cooking." That book has now been revised, expanded and reissued as "Southwestern Cooking New and Old" (University of New Mexico Press: $17.50).

A cookbook is never a final achievement, complete and unalterable. Authors continue to grow, finding new and sometimes better versions of a dish, developing new recipes and changing their culinary philosophies. So it is with Johnson. In his new book, he drops the MSG that had been included in some recipes. Garlic salt becomes fresh garlic. The parsley added to a garbanzo bean dip is replaced by cilantro. Black beans replace kidney beans as an alternative to pintos for refried beans.

In the soup chapter, canned condensed beef bouillon is scrapped in favor of light beef stock. And the revised version of Texas gazpacho is more elaborate than the first, adding cilantro, tomatillos, green chiles and oregano, whereas the original basil and ground coriander are dropped.

Now living in San Francisco, Johnson has introduced new dishes encountered on return trips to the Southwest. Among these are a salsa that he calls the "world's best Green Chile Sauce," carne adovada, which is a marinated pork dish, and a "superior" version of natillas, a custard dessert.

Johnson rates the salsa so highly that he has made it his "one and only green chile sauce" and uses it in a variety of ways. "It makes a splendid meal over beans, with a topping of sour cream--so good in fact you won't miss having meat," he writes. Johnson is a man of many fewer words than Dent, adding only spare commentary to his recipes. But, in the end, the recipes must speak for themselves, and these promise a lot of good eating.

Family Foods

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