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A Tex-Mex Menu from the Grill

The vibrant dishes of “border cuisine” are alive with chiles, fresh vegetables, and lots of smoke from the grill

Fine Cooking Issue 16
Photos: Ellen Silverman
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Park Kerr lives in El Paso, where a ten-minute stroll from downtown will land you in another country. His inspiration for cooking border cuisine–which is unique to west Texas, southern Arizona, and New Mexico–comes from the open-air markets in Juárez, the city across the border from El Paso. The markets are packed with fresh fruit, chiles, vegetables, and herbs, as well as the  stalls of street vendors who prepare salsas, burritos, fresh salads, and other foods that they improvise on portable mesquite-fired braziers. This kind of casual, outdoor food is perfect for  entertaining, and Kerr plans his entire menu around his backyard grill, so he can spend time outside with his friends and not be stuck in the kitchen.

Border cuisine is simple but vivacious, and based on lots of fresh produce. A border “starter kit” would include: red, ripe tomatoes, Haas avocados, onions, garlic, cilantro, limes (the last three are accents that add vibrancy to border cuisine); many different chiles (dried red chiles, fresh green chiles, chipotles–dried, smoked red jalapeños–fiery chiles de arbol, and mellow, fleshy poblanos; fresh flour and corn tortillas and pots of pinto beans; and fresh Mexican fruits for desserts and drinks. And now a word about chiles. Park uses chiles not just to provide “heat,” but as a way of conveying a broad range of flavors, from grassy to smoky to fruity, in his cooking.  He often grills or roasts chiles to transform the tongue-scorching heat of raw chiles into a more complex and balanced flavor. Having more than one type of chile in a dish is another way to get a more rounded chile flavor. (A helpful photograph identifies six common chiles.)

 Park’s menu is simple and intriguing. The main dish is chicken salpicón, a smoky marinated chicken in a tangy vinaigrette, served over a garnish of fresh vegetables. A chunky grilled vegetable salsa serves as a side dish; grilling caramelizes the sugars in the vegetables and gives them a smoky-sweet flavor. Then comes a guacamole to cool the spice and smokiness of the other dishes; here it’s decidedly chunky and stuffed into long green grilled peppers. Dessert is not authentically Mexican, but it’s grilled and finishes the meal nicely. Rosina Tinari Wilson gives her vote to gold tequila as a good match for this menu. Featured recipes: Chiles Frios (Guacamole in long green chiles); Grilled Chicken Salpicón; Grilled Pico de Gallo; and Grilled Pineapple with Butter-Rum Sauce.

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