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FOOD : Tex-Mex to the Max : Red-Hot Menus Spark Southwestern Feasts

July 05, 1987|BETSY BALSLEY

WITH SOUTHWESTERN cuisine showing up high on almost every list of what's "in" in food these days, the publication of Jane Butel's new book, "Fiesta!" (Harper & Row: $15.95), couldn't have come at a better time. And certainly there are few cookbook authors who have devoted as much time to researching and experimenting with the border cuisines that compose what is loosely called Southwestern.

In her latest book, Butel, a recognized authority on Southwestern cuisine and the author of eight cookbooks on Tex-Mex and allied cooking, has chosen to adapt the popular flavors of the border states to a more contemporary way of dining.

"I think people are beginning to convert old recipes to an upscale style of eating," she said recently. "Foods are lighter. There aren't as many fried foods being served in the Southwest. I even debated about using lard (in the recipes) at all, but it's still the best flavor transporter, so I just cut down on the amounts. I don't use so much.

"There's more of a blurring of ethnic influences, too," she added, pointing out evidence of French and Italian flavorings and cooking techniques in dishes that formerly were authentically Southwestern. Asked what she saw as the major difference between Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex foods, Butel said that Cal-Mex means more fresh foods--from chiles to vegetables to herbs. But the use of fresh foods is becoming increasingly popular throughout the country.

In her travels, she now has little difficulty finding fresh cilantro. "I think it has taken a giant leap forward," she said. "In fact, I almost feel it's being overused. Tomatillos , something available in limited areas only until recently, are now becoming widely available." She also believes that the market for Mexican oregano is growing.

Butel's latest book offers an array of complete menus for parties from picnics to a Christmas Eve supper, all with a Southwestern flair. "I think people are turning back to entertaining at home," she said, crediting her sister-in-law with the idea behind the basic plan of the book. "She always said, 'I never know what to serve with what when I entertain.' So I decided to try taking much of the intimidation out of entertaining and cooking."

It took more than three years for Butel to develop a series of menus that could be orchestrated successfully by even an inexperienced cook. Her recipes are clear and easy to follow, and she offers ample advice on which parts of a menu can be made ahead of time and which foods complement each other. She also offers easy decorating and serving suggestions with each of the menus.

The following recipes are from a menu for an "Old El Paso Border Dinner," which she contends would be suitable for almost any business or social occasion. It's a well-balanced menu based on a chorizo-and-pine-nut-stuffed pork roast accompanied by a green-bean-and-new- potato side dish dressed in a spicy salsa vinaigrette. For dessert she would serve a variation of an English trifle in which she incorporates flavors from a traditional New Mexican / Spanish Natillas custard. And her wine of choice, in spite of the spiciness of some of the dishes, would be a dry red such as a good Cabernet Sauvignon.

Butel's book is definitely an upscale offering. She has done a good job of adapting traditional flavors identified with the Southwest into menus that fit today's eating patterns.

FRIJOLES NEGROS TOSTADITAS 1 pint corn oil

8 corn tortillas

cup bacon drippings or lard

2 large garlic cloves, finely minced

1 large Spanish onion, finely chopped

2 1-pound cans black beans or 1 1/2 cups dry black beans, cooked

1 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon rum or sherry

1 teaspoon fresh lime juice

1 bunch watercress, rinsed and stems removed

5 radishes, sliced thin

cup finely chopped green onions

1/2 cup sour cream

1 cup coarsely grated Monterey Jack cheese

Heat corn oil in deep skillet to 375 degrees. While oil is heating, line a baking sheet with several layers of paper towels for draining. Cut each tortilla four times into equal parts, cutting almost to center. Fry each tortilla until crisp, watching for bubbles to subside before turning to fry second side. Drain, tapping each one in center to separate them into 4 pieces.

In heavy frying pan, heat bacon drippings. Add garlic, and as it begins to turn golden, toss in onion and cook and stir until it becomes clear. Add beans and mash with potato masher or large heavy spoon until they are completely pureed. Season with salt, rum and lime juice. (If beans seem too dry, add a few drops of hot water. They should be the texture of heavy pudding so they can be spread on fried tortillas.)

Carefully spread a layer of beans on each tortilla just before serving. Then sprinkle sprigs of watercress over top of each. Add a few disks of radish, a toss of scallion rounds, and center each with 1 tablespoon sour cream topped with 2 tablespoons grated cheese. Makes 8 servings.

CHORIZO-AND-PINON-NUT-STUFFED LOIN OF PORK 3 1/2 to 4 pounds boneless, butterflied loin of pork

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