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The Foundation of Tex-Mex

Enchilada Dinner Enchilada Dinner
by John Raven, Ph.B.

The basic Tex-Mex menu has evolved from the original peasant-style food to an exotic scramble of ridiculous proportions. It is not unusual to see something like lime-papaya- chipotle sauce for a sad little piece of tilapia. The original Tex-Mex menu that became so popular after World War II was made up of enchiladas, tamales, rice, beans, guacamole and chili sauce.

The "regular dinner" at El Matamoros in Austin was two enchiladas, (you had choice of meat or cheese) one tamale, rice and beans with chili sauce and cheeese. The "special dinner" included all of the above, plus a plate of guacamole salad and a crispy taco. The guacamole was presented on a bed of chopped lettuce and tomatoes.

If you want to prepare primo Tex-Mex, you must know how to make the foundation items.


Guacamole is mashed avocado with a couple to things added. The avocado comes out of central Mexico and has been a staple there for thousands of years. You will need:
  • 2 medium avocados, nearly ripe (get someone who knows avocados to show you how to select the ones of correct ripeness; it has to do with squeezing them)
  • 2 tablespoons lemon or lime juice, fresh
  • 2 to 3 tablespoons of minced onion
  • 1 small clove garlic, smashed and minced
  • 1 /2 cup diced ripe tomato (the little, marble size, sweet tomatoes sliced lengthwise are wonderful here)
Cut the avocado lengthwise all the way around and "unscrew" it; that is, twist the halves apart. Pop out the pit and and remove the rind. Cut the meat into small pieces. Add the lemon or lime juice and mix. (The acid in the juice keeps the meat from turning dark.) You can mash the avocado using a fork or you can run it through the food processor. If you process it, you want to pulse it a few times, leaving some chunks. Don't purée it.

Mix in the onion and garlic. Don't add the tomatoes until you are ready to serve the mix. As we mentioned earlier, the guacamole should be presented on a bed of chopped lettuce and chopped tomato.

Spanish Rice

Rice used with Tex-Mex is a seasoned rice, not just plain steamed or boiled. My buddy Scott has about the best rice recipe I have found.

Scott's Spanish Rice
Scott prepares his rice in a 12-inch skillet with a tight-fitting lid.

  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 cups rice (Texmati brand preferred)
  • 2 medium onions, chopped
  • 1/4 cup fine chop red bell pepper
  • 4 cubes chicken bouillon (Wyler's) OR 2 cubes, if you use Knorr's Extra Large Size
  • 3-1/2 cups water
  • 1 9-ounce can tomatoes (crush 'em)
  • 1/2 tablespoons comino seeds ground in a mocejete or, if you don't have one, a good mortar & pestle OR 1 teaspoon ground cumin
Combine oil and rice in a moderately hot pan and brown, stirring often. When the rice is browned, add the chopped onion and stir until the onions are translucent.

Add boiling water with dissolved bouillon cubes to pan, along with tomatoes and comino. Stir well and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes. You want a rice that is fairly dry, not juicy.

More John Raven

Refried Beans (Refritos)

Tex-Mex beans come to the table in the form of refried beans. Start by soaking a pound of dried pinto beans overnight in cool water. Drain the soaking water and add fresh. You want about two inches of water over the beans as they will absorb a lot of water as they cook.

Put the beans on to cook. Bring them to a boil and then reduce the heat to get a steady simmer. Add two slices of chopped bacon, a hambone or a teaspoon of Orrington’s Farms ham flavoring. Then add about a half teaspoon of chili powder. As the beans soften up, add a clove or two of minced garlic or half a teaspoon of garlic powder. Use a wooden spoon to mash some of the beans against the side of the pot to enrich the "gravy." When the beans are done, you can set them aside until you are ready to refry them.

To refry the beans, use a large, heavy skillet (cast iron preferred). Melt about two tablespoons of lard or shortening in the skillet, and bring it to medium hot.

Use a slotted spoon to transfer the beans to the skillet. When you have about a cup of beans in the skillet, begin to mash them. A potato masher or potato ricer works well. Don't purée them; leave a few chunks in the mix. Add the rest of the beans and continue mashing and stirring. If the mix gets too dry, add some of the bean juice from the bean pot. Your finished refritos should have the consistency of whipped potatoes.

Chili Sauce or Chili Gravy

Chili sauce or gravy is required with any Tex-Mex menu. This sauce is like a vegan chili. On the plate it goes over the enchiladas, tamales, rice and beans. The cheese is added last and melted under the broiler. I'm not sure what the chili sauce you find in bottles is; it's not chili sauce to my way of thinking.
  • 1/4 cup lard or vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 2 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 2 tablespoons chili power
  • 2 cups beef broth, chicken broth or water (I prefer beef broth)
Heat the lard or oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Sprinkle in the flour and stir continuously for 3 to 4 minutes, or until it makes a light brown roux. Stir in the black pepper, salt, garlic powder, ground cumin, dried oregano and chili powder and continue to cook for 1 minute, constantly stirring and blending ingredients. Add the broth, mixing and stirring, until the sauce thickens. Turn heat to low and let the sauce simmer for 15 minutes. Add more broth if required. (Use the low-sodium broth, and you won't get things too salty.)

All the Tex-Mex plates have tortillas instead of bread. You have to decide if the labor required to make the tortillas is worth your time and energy. There are good tortillas on the market; you just have to shop around for a brand you like.

If you want to check out making your own tortillas, see How to Make Corn Tortillas.

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