Be sure to use Mexican, not Italian, dried oregano in queso fundido con chorizo. (Johnny Autry)

Be sure to use Mexican, not Italian, dried oregano in queso fundido con chorizo. (Johnny Autry)

Tex-Mex: The ultimate comfort food, on both sides of the border

A new cookbook celebrates the cuisine’s family-first traditions and new innovations.

At the beginning of our married life, my husband and I stretched every dollar to the breaking point. Meals were sometimes only two a day and going out for a bite consisted of hanging out in the Costco parking lot — no, we didn’t have a membership — sharing a hot dog meal with lemonade. The Grocery Outlet snack aisle was our dessert cart, and a bag of chocolate Riesen candies was a splurge.

Paydays came once a month, and once a month we would head down to our favorite family-run Mexican restaurant where dishes included handmade tortillas, beef soup with mint and cinnamon added to aid digestion, and light and crispy pan-fried burros.

We rarely had the cash for an entree, but that was no matter — our favorite dish could be found among the appetizers. Beautiful bubbly queso fundido with ham, carnitas or housemade chorizo — this was our favorite treat. Even today, after 16 years of marriage, it still ranks top on my list of favorite comfort foods.

Texan-born chef Ford Fry took queso fundido and Tex-Mex to Atlanta, opening the Tex-Mex focused restaurant Superica nine years ago. He now brings Tex-Mex home in his first cookbook, “Tex-Mex: Traditions, Innovations, and Comfort Foods from Both Sides of the Border.” Filled with comforting and beloved dishes, “Tex-Mex” shares the how-tos on a cuisine that defines the culture of living, cooking and eating close to the border.

“Once upon a time,” writes Fry, “‘Tex’ and ‘Mex’ were one and the same.” The territories of Texas and Mexico were all one spread of land controlled by Spain. Before joining the American Union, Texas first fought for its independence from Mexico. Despite this, Fry explains, “its identity — and therefore its foodways — had, by and large, already been forged by its deep roots in Mexico.”

By the 1970s, the term “Tex-Mex” had become the defining name of a cuisine that married American ingredients with traditional Mexican cooking. Diana Kennedy, cookbook author and authority on bringing the cuisines of Mexico to English-speaking food lovers, is credited with drawing this line, legitimizing what was previously considered a sort of bastardized Mexican food.

For all of us growing up with a pile of stale tortilla chips doused with lukewarm processed cheese pumped from a can and calling it nachos, it’s clear we were victims of the bastardization of Tex-Mex food.

Ford Fry sets this right, refusing to include California’s take on Mexican cuisine and staying true to those dishes and methods that hail from his homeland.

For me, Tex-Mex is the epitome of friends and family fare, the sort of food that’s never boring and everyone enjoys. With this in mind, I honed in on the queso fundido and got to cooking.

I didn’t make my own chorizo, though you can. There’s too many decent sources for quality chorizo in the Skagit Valley where I live, and I selected a housemade version at my favorite market. Combining this with three kinds of Mexican cheeses and Mexican oregano — don’t use Italian as a substitute! — I shoved the dish under the broiler for 5 minutes and voila! Molten cheesy goodness.

To serve as entree to our fundido, I whipped together the enchiladas suizas. Shopping for the ingredients is the longest task you’ll have, and after a similar 5 minutes under the broiler we had bubbly enchiladas verdes filled with creamy shredded chicken and topped with Mexican cheeses and cilantro chimichurri.

If I had thought we could handle another cheese dish, I’d have added the chili con queso. But Fry includes some lighter fare too — grilled shrimp diablo, “the wide world of salsas,” fruit salad con chile and classic guacamole.

Desserts like tres leches cake with toasted coconut and brown sugar pralines give me fodder for my sweet tooth. And the margaritas? Of course Fry includes this classic Tex-Mex cocktail, along with sangria, micheladas and a Texas star paloma.

Who should get this? Tex-Mex food lovers that haven’t had the benefit of handed-down recipes from family and loved ones. Lovers of anything cheesy with a kick.

Be sure to use Mexican, not Italian, dried oregano in queso fundido con chorizo. (Johnny Autry)

Be sure to use Mexican, not Italian, dried oregano in queso fundido con chorizo. (Johnny Autry)

Queso fundido con chorizo

Don’t use Italian oregano here. Make that trip to your local mercado for the Mexican variety — when you’ll also be getting your chorizo and cheeses. In a pinch you could substitute mozzarella for the Oaxaca cheese, but it won’t have the same flavor. If you can’t find Chihuahua cheese, use extra Oaxaca cheese.

6 ounces Mexican (fresh) chorizo, crumbled

8 ounces Chihuahua cheese, shredded

4 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, shredded

4 ounces Oaxaca cheese, shredded

1 teaspoon dried Mexican oregano

6-inch flour or corn tortillas, store-bought or homemade, for serving

Place a rack 6 to 8 inches from the heat source and preheat the oven to broil.

In a medium sauté pan set over medium heat, cook the chorizo, stirring, until lightly browned and cooked through, 5 to 6 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the chorizo to a paper-towel-lined plate to drain.

In a medium bowl, combine the chorizo, all the cheeses and the oregano and toss to combine. Transfer the mixture to a shallow ovenproof baking dish.

Broil until the cheese is bubbling and golden brown on top, 4 to 5 minutes.

Serve immediately, dolloping a spoonful or two onto the center of a warm tortilla and rolling it up like a taco.

It takes longer to shop for the ingredients in enchiladas suizas as it does to make the dish. (Johnny Autry)

It takes longer to shop for the ingredients in enchiladas suizas as it does to make the dish. (Johnny Autry)

Enchiladas suizas

For the chimichurri, finely chop a bunch of cilantro (less the 2 teaspoons for recipe) with a drizzle of oil, sprinkling of salt and 1-2 smashed garlic cloves.

Cooking spray

1 (4-ounce) can crushed tomatillos

1 (4-ounce) can whole green chiles

¾ cup chopped poblano peppers

¾ cup chopped onion

¾ cup chopped fresh tomatillos

½ teaspoon finely chopped jalapeño pepper

2 teaspoons chopped fresh cilantro

1 garlic clove, minced

½ teaspoon kosher salt

Pinch of ground cloves

½ cup sour cream

Vegetable oil, for softening tortillas

8 (6-inch) corn tortillas, store-bought or homemade

1 cup shredded chicken or shredded store-bought rotisserie chicken

4 ounces Chihuahua cheese, grated

4 ounces queso fresco, crumbled

½ cup cilantro chimichurri or additional chopped fresh cilantro

Place a rack 6 to 8 inches from the heat source and preheat the oven to broil. Spray an 8 x 12-inch baking dish with cooking spray.

In a large saucepan set over medium-high heat, combine the canned tomatillos, green chiles, poblanos, onion, fresh tomatillos, jalapeño, cilantro, garlic, salt and cloves. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to low and simmer until the vegetables have softened, 30 minutes. Using an immersion blender, puree the mixture until smooth. (Alternatively, carefully transfer the mixture to a regular blender and purée until smooth, then return it to the pan.) Stir in the sour cream to combine. Taste and add more salt as needed. Remove the pan from the heat and cover to keep the sauce warm.

Fill a Dutch oven or large heavy pot with oil to a depth of ½ inch. Heat the oil over medium-high heat to 350 degrees.

Using tongs, dip a few tortillas at a time into the hot oil until softened, 3 or 4 seconds. Stack them on a plate and cover with a clean kitchen towel to keep warm.

Place a softened tortilla on a clean work surface, spoon 2 tablespoons of the chicken down the center, and roll up to enclose the chicken. Place the rolled tortilla seam-side down in the prepared baking dish. Repeat with the remaining tortillas and chicken. Top the enchiladas with the sauce and sprinkle with the Chihuahua cheese.

Broil until the cheese is golden and bubbling, about 5 minutes.

Top with the queso fresco and chimichurri.

Reprinted with permission from “Tex-Mex Cookbook: Traditions, Innovations, and Comfort Foods from Both Sides of the Border,” by Ford Fry, © 2019. Photographs by Johnny Autry. Published by Clarkson Potter, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc.

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