A Tex-Mix Manifesto

What exactly is Tex-Mix, besides a cute term I came up with for my own household cuisine?

Tex-Mix uses the Tex-Mex flavor base in preparations from other cuisines. Tex-Mix cuts bagna cauda with lime juice, eats hummus with jalapeños and tortilla chips, and adds canned tomatoes with chiles to French lentil ragouts. Tex-Mix puts comino in its candied sweet potatoes. Tex-Mix thinks Moosewood’s bulgur-based vegetarian chili is clever. Tex-Mix was spiking its brownies with cayenne long before Mexican chocolate was cool. Tex-Mix takes garlic for granted.

Tex-Mix plugs elements of other cuisines into the forms that define Tex-Mex. Tex-Mix swoons over Lebanese quesadillas and amardeen margaritas. Tex-Mix wonders about tamales filled with smoked duck and cherry demiglace. Tex-Mix even enjoys a broccoli and tofu burrito with Thai peanut sauce—sometimes.

But bland grilled veggie wraps are right out. And Tex-Mix would never dream of emptying that undercooked zucchini into a bowl with some hard black beans and a dollop of fat-free sour cream and calling the result Mexican. Whether its food is good for its health is not Tex-Mix’s main concern. Tex-Mix gets enough exercise. If Tex-Mix leaves out the lard, it’s probably because duck fat seemed tastier in that recipe.

Tex-Mix doesn’t care if duck fat isn’t authentic. In fact, Tex-Mix doesn’t care if it is. (The Mexica had Muscovy ducks, after all). Tex-Mix loves pickled jalapeños, flour tortillas, and pinto beans. It took Guatemala to teach Tex-Mix the joys of fully cooked black beans. It’s not self-conscious atavism but the need for a bitter note that puts cocoa powder into Tex-Mix’s Texas Red. That chili makes a great Frito pie, by the way. It’s also terrific over vermicelli—that’s not Cincinatti, that’s la abuelita’s home cooking. What’s more, esta abuela puts peanut butter in her mole, and has never touched a metate. But her cooking is absolutely authentic.

Tex-Mix loves and respects its grandmother, but it didn’t learn all its recipes from her. Did you? There’s no getting around it: Tex-Mix is mixed. (Before that was cool, too.) Tex-Mix owns it. Tex-Mix understands that innovation and eating what you like are as important to cuisine as tradition and eating what you know. Tex-Mix is not humble. Tex-Mix avers that it improves on its grandmother. Tex-Mix has a broad palate, and Tex-Mix knows how to cook.


end of plum season


The plums are near the end of their season.


Transitional fruits


Last tomatoes, first butternut; last melons, first persimmons.


Pig roast and apple cake

Patty and Jesper celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary with a backyard pig roast on Saturday evening. Thanks to La Caja China, roasting a whole pig was easier than anyone expected. Although the coals did start off too hot, meaning that the pig roasted too quickly, and remedial measures (such as dousing it with cold beer) had to be taken. Thanks to riding the Point Reyes Populaire (115k brevet) earlier that day, J-P and I arrived later than we expected and missed the excitement. We got there just as the pig was being carved.

Patty would not allow us to go home without taking a plate of extra pig, so it was fortunate for us that the weather turned yesterday. The cool rain made 1-2-3 pork over garlic-fried rice pretty appealing.

Leftovers from the pig roast with garlic fried rice

This first try at imitating the rice in Papalote’s Mexipino burrito turned out all right–next time, more garlic, fried longer.

For dessert, Danish apple cake in individual ramekins:
Ramekin-sized apple cake
Had to find some way to use up the creme fraiche!


improved California figs

I didn’t know until I moved to California that Texas has some of the best figs in the world. Boston had no figs at all, so most summers I had my family send me figs (or send me home with them after a visit). In California, I expected to have my figgy needs me–and I was disappointed. California has figs, yes, but they’re big and watery compared to Texas figs. Texas figs are like candy; California figs are meh. All I can figure is that they’re too well irrigated. But since Texas has been suffering drought, and too little water means no figs at all, I haven’t been able to get my fix.

Mark Bittman’s recipe for figs in blankets (bacon-wrapped figs, so actually figs in pigs) calls for broiling, which got me thinking: Could the broiler improve California figs? The answer is yes. Not quite to the standards of Texas figs, but better. Just fire up a broiler, spray a baking sheet with neutral-flavored oil, place halved figs cut side up on the sheet, and broil for 2-3 minutes, until the figs leak a little juice and the tops start to split and swell. Improved, though not perfected, and delicious with a drizzling of creme fraiche.

What's left after broiled figs with creme fraiche
And it leaves art on your plate!


Indian summer in San Francisco

Mid- to late September offers most of our rare chances to enjoy our east-facing deck in the evenings. Last week, Jasmine joined us for Pirate Booty, some really delicious pear-and-almond dark chocolate, and white port cocktails on the porch.

Monday evening on the porch

To make a white port cocktail: Peel a few green grapes and put in a glass with ice. Add 2-3 fingers of white port, depending on the size of the glass. Top with tonic. Better than the coldest beer on a hot day.


mexipino fusion

When Jeremy treated me to lunch at Papalote for helping him complete his move to Seattle, I had already ordered a prawn quesadilla before I noticed a poster advertising their new “Mexipino burrito.” A burrito filled with chicken adobo, garlic rice, and fresh tomatoes? I told myself I would try it next time.

Next time was last night, and oh my goodness! That rice is amazing. Imagine the best Mexican rice you’ve ever had, drained, and fried in oil with garlic. So delicious. So something I’m going to try at home. (The chicken wasn’t bad either.)

It was the first food we’ve eaten out in a long time that made both J-P and me gasp with delight. (Eating in, the last thing was Mervin’s limes pickled in chili oil.) Thus continues our trend of being more impressed with San Francisco’s street food than with its high-end cuisine. I never thought I would like a Fresh-Mex place this much, but J-P nailed it: “It’s been Fresh-Mexed, but by Mexicans, not Californians.” How can that be bad?


When we go to the Tourist Club, we do it up right

Cold fried chicken
fried chicken

Peach cake
peach cake

Corn on the cob, chili-lime butter, two pounds of blueberries, cole slaw, potato salad, beer, and happy friends
tourist club


I’m pretty sure you can’t do that


Tamarind = new school
Rita-Hayworth-looking pin-up = old school
Don’t cross the streams!


close encounters with a food culture: coffee

Steve tweets: Coffee today with friends just back from Italy. They were partly relieved to be back in SF where we have good coffee. #theworldhaschanged

It’s true. Italy (and Switzerland) was happy to provide all the espresso I might want to drink, and I drank plenty. More than I have since I was an affected teenager. But getting my morning cups was a challenge. It was a clash of two coffee cultures, both valid, but in which the other mightily inconvenienced the expectations of mine.

Our first morning in Lugano, we wandered down to a breakfast room equipped with a food buffet, two thermal coffee carafes, and two or three large, round tables, all partially occupied by elderly, German-speaking tourists. Both J-P and I figured that it was communal seating all around, so we gathered our food, pumped our coffee (maybe drip, maybe Americano, regardless a bit weak), and took our seats among the oldsters. Awkward to eat surrounded by strangers we couldn’t understand, but such are the ways of travel. We punctuated the experience with trips to the carafes; it was one of only two mornings either of us would get to refill our half-size cups more than once while at the breakfast table.

The next morning, the buffet was there but the urns were not. There was no one at the communal tables, but a few people seated singly or in pairs out on the patio. We gestured and grunted to the waiter about this possibility, and he showed us to a table. We already had inklings, I don’t remember how, that the day might be a holiday. (This was the day we would hike from Monte San Salvatore to Monte Arbostora and down into Morcote in a rainstorm, to find that the last ferry back to Lugano had left half an hour before, on its holiday schedule due to the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul.) We chalked this otherwise inexplicable change of breakfast arrangements up to the suspected holiday.

Coffee came to the table in a small-ish silver urn, which yielded about eight ounces of coffee each. We drained our cups with hangdog expressions and stopped for espresso on our way out of town.

The next morning, both the carafes and the communal tables were back, but it was clear this time that there was seating on the patio. We sat outside again, and this time the coffee urn was a little bigger than before. Call it a 20-ouncer. (Our French press at home makes about a quart, and we still sometimes give each other dirty looks over it.) I broke and headed over to the communal carafes for a refill, but the waiter caught me. He inquired about my need for “un caffe di bon giorno,” and his colleague seemed to find this such a bon mot that they both caught the giggles. One of them did bring us another urn—a small one.

That was the most coffee we ever got in one sitting. I hoped that the waiters’ teasing would extend to them bringing us a yet larger urn the next day, but the staff changed with the weekend, and the new waiters neither joked about nor humored our American ways. Each subsequent morning brought one—and only one—little urn.

The Caffe Motta at Linate Airport was the final place we enacted this drama, drinking two six-ounce, two-Euro Americanos each. We were well resigned to the dearth of morning coffee by then, and instead we noticed how differently such a place used its space than it would if it were in an American airport. First, it was more than a kiosk or a counter; it occupied its own large room, part of which was roped off for table service later in the day. That said, the food displayed in the extensive display cases would hardly have filled those of a coffee kiosk in an American airport; the norm of display was sparse, where ours is heaping. The people behind the counter also seemed calmer than their American counterparts; in a similarly busy place here, there would have been a lot more bustle and yelling. Beyond the counter, partly visible, was a kitchen. Most of what we could see happening was assembly: taking pastries from a bag, arranging them on a tray, and dusting them with powdered sugar, for example. But it was clear from the lack of disposable plates, cups, and utensils (we saw very few during our stay) that the sink, at least, saw use.


cheap food switzerland

Really there’s not any cheap food in Switzerland. But I’ve exhausted our fancy-meal experiences, and what kind of vacation in a new place would it be if we didn’t sample the local junk food? Lunch was easy on hiking days: we either took it with us or ordered something simple in the restaurant at the top of the mountain. (It’s not quite true that there’s a good one at the top of each Alp, but close enough.) Nectarines, butter cookies, beef jerky (aka American snack); unremarkable pasta pomodoro and ridiculously priced orange Fanta.

Packed in

Candy bar at an Alp-top restaurant

On the first day we lunched before we hiked, having walked through the town in the morning and visited the farmer’s market on our way back. We took a roast chicken, a pint of blackberries, and a couple of rolls back to the hotel room. We had no plates or utensils or napkins, but we did try to bundle the bones up neatly before throwing them in the trash. We figured the maids would decide we were barbaric, probably Albanians.

We spent a couple of days mainly in Lugano, recovering from hikes, relaxing, and doing a bit of work. These necessitated finding lunch. One of those days we wandered over to the university, so that J-P could scope it out pre-conference. Bar Lando introduced us to two novelties. The first was the Swiss panini. (I should note that a few lunch places advertised themselves as paninotecas, a word I hope to adopt into my vocabulary.) It seems that the kebab stands’ flatbread (referred to as durum) has caught on, because that’s what our grilled sandwiches came clothed in. They were folded into roughly triangular shapes, so I christened them Switalian quesadillas. Mine was filled with brie, salami, and a kind of cole slaw, which made me consider a wider world of fillings to put between flour tortillas back home.

The second novelty at Bar Lando was Rivella. J-P ordered one for each of us, and when I asked him what it was, he said, “I don’t know. Some sort of aperitif thing, not sure if it’s alcoholic…it’s all over the signs and umbrellas.” Rivella turns out to be a kind of soda, made mostly of whey, besides the usual fizzy water and sugar. How very Swiss. It’s not bad, at least in its red and green versions. The low-cal blue kind was kind of cloying, and we never did try the yellow.


Another downmarket lunch, this one at Mercato Migros (the supermarket nearest our hotel), yielded some mediocre pizza notable mostly for its sprinkling of capers and the nifty slice-shaped plates it came on. Dessert was a package of what we can only refer to as Kinder things. The wrapper (around the five-pack; we’re not big on caution) depicted things that looked like ice cream sandwiches…but were merely refrigerated. We could just make out something about “milk solids.” How could we resist?

Inside were five facsimiles of ice cream sandwiches. We had no way to identify the filling (even the internet doesn’t discuss these things, at least not in English), but it definitely involved milk solids. Imagine an unnaturally white substance with a texture like a shelf-stable whipped cream. The “cookies” were basically stale, brown sheets of sponge cake. The whole thing tasted vaguely of bubble gum. I made J-P take the fifth one, and we figured the debris only further confirmed our barbarity to the maids.

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