Sunday, January 24, 2016

Food is Regional

As I do on so many Sundays I am sitting here trying to think what is left to write about.  I cannot find a story in everything I have done even if I went to a good movie or opera or saw yet another exhibition.  Here, I must admit to suffering from ADD (attention deficit disorder).  Of course, there was no name for it when I was young but I self diagnosed after we were told that is what our son’s problem in school was.   I cannot focus like my wife, the scholar, can, I am continuously distracted.  This time it was by email and discussing with friends where to go to dinner.

This, of course, made me hungry and got me thinking about food.  I realized that there are so many things that I ate in New York that I cannot get here or more likely, foods that I never ate in New York and I cannot get enough of here.  We did have a few Mexican restaurants in New York but in the Southwest it has been transformed into what is known as Tex-Mex.  I would make the comparison between having a burger at a Hamburg Heaven or Soup Burg, and having one at one of New York’s fancy eateries where they may add items such as foi gras and you cannot eat with your hands because your mouth is not large enough.  I realize that sounds like I prefer the one sans foi gras and that is generally true.  I am going to catch hell for this but Tex-Mex seems to me to be cheap Mexican food.

What we have in New Mexico that we enjoy are margaritas.  These are drinks with Tequila, Triple Sec and Lemon Juice.  Well, actually  there are over a 1,000 different tequilas that can be made with Cointreau or Grand Marnier as well.  Also, there are so many tequilas that one menu in town has over a hundred tequilas listed with as many combinations for making a margarita.  I am sure there are many in the Southwest who are saying, but everyone knows what a Margarita is ,but, no, it is as rare to see a Margarita on the menu back East as it is to see a scotch and soda on a menu in New Mexico.  Food like art is regional.   I find it Interesting that in Mexico they don’t drink margaritas, they take their tequila straight.  Margaritas are reserved for tourists. The trick is to use the cheaper tequilas for the mixed drinks and keep the better stuff for drinking straight up. Here are some margarita possibilities: CLICK HERE

Another rarity on the East coast is chile.  In the southwest we all know it as a very spicy dish that comes in red or green.  Though the two sound similar they are totally different.  Chili back east is Chili con carne, it is known as American English chili, a spicy stew containing chili peppers, meat, and often tomatoes and beans.  The southwest version is just roasted chile peppers.  The former has little spice here it can be mouth burning hot depending on the season and the individual pepper.  A standard question in the Southwest is “red, green or Christmas?”  It took me a while to figure that one out and still sometimes I find myself staring at the waiter before it dawns.  Translation: do you just want red chile, or just green chile, or both on your enchilada.

Which brings me to another issue.   A question most people ask when coming to visit Santa Fe is what’s the difference between an enchilada, quesadilla, tacos, fajitas, or a tostada.  The simple answer is they are all the same just put together and cooked a little differently.  They all include either pork, beef, fish or veggies, they all include cheese and tortillas (flat bread) either baked, fried or cold and then served flat or rolled.  It can get very confusing until you accept the premise that these are the basics that are put together differently.  A sample menu from Tomasita’s  Tex-Mex Restaurant in Santa Fe.

When I started writing a few days ago I did not expect to be ending with a plug for a Santa Fe restaurant but we just tried a new place in town, Sazón.  The chef,  originally from Mexico City is Fernando Olea who has run and started a number of restaurants in town.  Sazón is in a different class from his others, high end in every sense.  But what a treat, the comment I have heard the most is, “it’s all about the mole.” This is pronounced molé.  When I was originally introduced to mole, I was told it tastes like chocolate.  To me it tasted nothing like chocolate and it took me quite a while until I would try it again.  Chef Olea said something to us that it so true, “The enemy of the taste is the eye and the mind.”  I had thought I didn’t like mole until I dismissed the idea of chocolate.  Chocolate is only one of the many ingredients in some, but not all, moles.  Chef Fernando Olea demonstrates his mole making technique.

Photo by Steve Collins
Our dinner at Sazón started out with six small dishes with different kinds of mole in them and tiny tortillas to dip into them and try them.  Our entire meal was what the French would call “Haute Cuisine”.   One of the Mexican specialties included an hors d’oeuvre of grasshoppers, which proved to be as described, like crispy bacon. By the way, the drink menu did not include a list of margaritas but a huge list of tequilas, which you could use in flights, several small glasses of different ones.  The main dining room at Sazón.

We can’t eat high- end food all the time, it is too rich and sometimes too complicated to get our minds around the flavors after a hard day, it is just too much of an effort.  Tex-Mex could be considered what the hamburger has always been in the rest of the country.  Simple, easy, wholesome, but once in a while it is fun to indulge and go for high end Mexican.

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