What Is Tex-Mex?

Tex-Mex is party food and family fare. Hearty dishes sauced with chili con carne are favorites, and so are quick burritos that give familiar staples a spicy twist. It's a fusion cuisine that mixes seasonings from south of the border with Texas beef and sometimes yellow cheese.

Differences between the two

Tex-Mex often uses sour cream where Mexican food would use crema, which is not at all the same thing. Where Mexican cooks use soft corn tortillas, Tex-Mex uses soft wheat flour tortillas or hard-fried corn tortillas. In fact, Tex Mex is more likely to include fried foods than a Mexican meal is.

Tex-Mex is not junk food, though. It's a unique style of cooking that can be done badly or well, with respect for the traditional ingredients or without. It's not self-consciously healthy the way California-Mexican can be. For example Tex-Mex often uses lard. It's not fascinated with precious ingredients, either, the way some Southwest cuisine can be. Tex-Mex, cooked properly, is real food for everyday people.

Chile con carne

Like the term Tex-Mex, chile con carne is controversial. Some believe it must never include beans, while others shun tomatoes. The idea of ground beef horrifies some cooks, while others will use only coarsely ground meat. Cumin was not originally a Mexican seasoning, but it is often used in Mexico. Here's one recipe for chile con carne.

Ingredients:

3 pounds stew meat: venison, beef or a mixture of meats; fat well-trimmed; chopped
1 large onion, chopped
1/2 teaspoon crushed pepper seeds, or to taste
1 teaspoon whole cumin seeds, crushed
1 tablespoon pure chili powder

Put everything in a heavy pot, without browning the meat, and cover with water just to the top of the meat. Bring to a boil, and then simmer slowly for four hours or more. Serve with cooked pinto beans and rice. Simple and good.

Variations

White chili is made with Great Northern beans and chicken. Black chili is made with black beans and shrimp. Chili verde is made with green chilies, pork or game, potatoes and carrots, in at least one variation. Each is good in its place, but only chili con carne can be Tex-Mex.

Tex-Mex is good food that makes the best of the ingredients available in a harsh environment. It's always satisfying, and sometimes it's beyond delicious.

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