Friday, April 5, 2013

Tex-Mex Overseas

[I wrote this post for The Hardship Homemaking blog, for which I am an occasional contributor and thought some of you might like to see it.]
As many of us who have moved around the world know, "Tex-Mex" is a uniquely American idea. 
Photo by Daniel Castro
Granted, there are some faint similarities to real Mexican food at the local El Torito, and you can also find a lot of familiar dishes in Mexican towns along the border, but Mexican food as we know it in America is definitively not Mexican.

But that's okay!  It's still delicious, right?!? And we still crave it when we're overseas!  And what are we to do when we can't find our trusted Old El Paso products on the grocery store shelves?  Well, we improvise, of course, as always....

I heard the funniest story from my friend Katie who tried making her favorite Tex-Mex meal in Germany...

"It was kind of a hilarious disaster. I wanted to make spinach enchiladas. I knew I could find spinach and cream cheese, but salsa, enchilada sauce and tortillas were a tough task to tackle. I found some tortillas in a can (desperate homesick times call for...) and decided to make my own salsa. I *did* see some Old El Paso enchilada sauce at the market, but it was selling for 6.99 euros a can! No way, man. I decided to reconstitute some dried adobo peppers I had, chop those finely and toss it in a pan with some tomato sauce, water/broth and cumin, salt and pepper. I simmered it for a while until it had reduced a bit and decided to hope for the best. Once assembled, baked and out of the oven, hubby and I took the first bites. He put on a brave face and attempted to power through. I casually mentioned that we still had a Dr. Oetker pizza in the freezer...and he seemed pretty relieved. We didn't attempt Tex-Mex again!"

But for me, "no Tex-Mex" for the rest of my life in the Foreign Service is not an option!  So here are a few "from scratch" recipes you can employ to satiate those cravings.  Obviously not all the ingredients can be found everywhere in the world, but I've provided some substitution ideas and for some of the ingredients, hopefully you can plan ahead with your consumables shipments to be ready for Enchilada or Taco night!

Homemade Salsa
Yields about 2 Cups

  • 1 lb fresh tomatoes (preferably Roma/Plum Tomatoes if available, which will equate to about 8 tomatoes, or any other fresh tomato or drained and diced canned tomatoes
  • 1/2 oz (about 2 Tbsp) minced jalapeño or other chile of your choice (preferably fresh, but canned or jarred will work as well)
  • 3 oz (about 1/2 small) minced red or white onion (you can use yellow onion if that's all you can find)
  • 3 Tbsp chopped cilantro (sometimes called fresh coriander or coriander leaves; either omit if you can't find it or you can use flat-leaf parsley for a slightly different flavor but still a fresh taste.
  • 3 Tbsp fresh lime juice (from about 2 limes, depending on size)
  • 1/2 tsp crushed black peppercorns
  • 1 tsp Kosher Salt
  1. If desired, remove the skin from your tomatoes using the "concasse" method: Boil about two cups of water in a small saucepan.  Remove the tomato stem and cut a small "x" in the other end of the tomato using a paring knife.  Place tomatoes in boiling water for about one minute.  Peel skin off with the help of your paring knife, starting at the "x" where the skin should have started to come away from the flesh of the tomato.
  2. Cut tomatoes in half around their "equator" and remove seeds using your finger or a paring knife.  Dice tomatoes.
  3. Combine diced tomatoes with the rest of your ingredients.
  4. Refrigerate for several hours, allowing the flavors to develop.  Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary before serving.

    Check out this previous blog post for a recipe for Roasted Tomatillo Salsa!
Homemade Enchilada Sauce
Recipe by Emeril Lagasse from, with substitution/gluten free notes by Alaina Missbach
Yields about 2 1/2 Cups of Sauce
  • 3 Tbsp vegetable oil (or any other high smoke point oil, which excludes Extra Virgin Olive Oil)
  • 1 Tbsp flour (**see gluten-free idea below)
  • 1/4 C chili powder (bottled, or made by toasting dried chiles of choice in a dry skillet, removing stems and seeds, and then grinding in a spice grinder)
  • 2 C chicken stock (canned/boxed or homemade, or substitute vegetable stock)
  • 10 oz tomato paste
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp Kosher Salt
  1. In a medium saucepan, heat oil, then add flour and cook for 1 minute, stirring with a wooden spoon.
  2. Add chili powder and cook for 30 seconds.
  3. Add stock, tomato paste, oregano and cumin.  Stir to combine.
  4. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to low (maintaining a simmer) and cook for 15 minutes.  The sauce will thicken and smooth out.
  5. Adjust seasonings as desired and serve atop your favorite enchiladas.
**To make this recipe gluten-free, skip the step where you add the flour, simply heating the oil and then adding the chili powder.  Mix 1/2 Tbsp of cornstarch or arrowroot powder into enough COLD water or stock to create a heavy cream consistency.  Once all ingredients are added and the sauce comes to a boil, whisk this starch slurry into the saucepan.  Simmer until sauce has reached your desired thickness, about 3-5 minutes.  If your starch isn't thick enough at this point, add more starch slurry.

Homemade Corn Tortillas

**For flour tortillas, check out this post from the Hardship Homemaking blog: Foolproof Homemade Flour Tortillas.
Photo by Scott Phillips

Recipe by Jennifer Armentrout from
Yields about fifteen 5 1/2" tortillas
  • 2 cups masa harina (corn flour, not corn meal)
  • 1 1/4 C warm water
  • 1/4 tsp table salt
  • Special Equipment: Tortilla Press or rolling pin
  1. In a medium bowl, combine all ingredients.  Mix and knead with your hands until the dough is smooth and homogenous.  It should be soft and not sticky, like soft Play-Doh.  If necessary, adjust texture with more water or masa harina.  Cover with plastic and set aside at room temperature for at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours.
  2. Cut two squares or rounds (at least 8" wide) of heavy plastic (such as from a Ziploc or grocery store bag).  Set a large flat griddle on the stove, straddling to burners, or use two skillets.  Set one burner to medium low and the other to medium high.
  3. Pinch off a golfball-size piece of dough and roll it into a ball.  Cover the bottom piece of your press with one sheet of plastic, place the dough ball in the center, and cover with the other sheet of plastic.  Press slightly with your palm then close the press and firmly press with the handle.  Rotate tortilla and press again, until the tortilla is 1/16" thick.  Alternatively, place first sheet of plastic on your countertop with the dough ball in the center and the other sheet on top, press slightly with your palm to flatten, and then roll out with your rolling pin to 1/16" thick.
  4. Peel off the top sheet of plastic, flip the tortilla over onto your hand, and carefully peel off the other plastic sheet.  (If the tortilla breaks, the dough is too dry; if it sticks, the dough is too wet.  Adjust your dough accordingly.
  5. Lay the tortilla on the cool side of the griddle by quickly flipping your hand over the griddle.  Cook just until the tortilla loosens from the griddle, 15 to 20 seconds.  (If the tortilla bubbles, the heat is too high.)
  6. With a spatula, flip the tortilla over onto the hot side and cook until the bottom is lightly browned in spots, about 20 seconds more.
  7. Flip again so the first side is on the hot part of the griddle and cook until the tortilla puffs in spots and browns lightly on that side, about 20 seconds more.  (If the tortilla doesn't puff, the griddle isn't hot enough, the dough is too dry, or you cooked it too long on the cool side.  Adjust for your remaining tortillas.)
  8. Immediately wrap cooked tortillas in a clean, dry cloth.  Continue pressing and cooking remaining dough.  Once all tortillas are cooked and wrapped in your cloth, let them rest there for 10-15 minutes before serving, during which time they'll steam themselves and become soft and pliable.  You can also keep your tortillas warm in a 200°F oven for up to an hour.
To make your enchiladas, mix together your choice of fillings (pre-cooked chicken/turkey or ground beef with taco seasoning (see below), onion and cheese; spinach and cream cheese; etc. etc...anything goes).  Fry your tortillas briefly in hot oil, drain, dip into your sauce, fill, and roll, placing seam-side down in a greased baking dish.  Top with your remaining sauce and shredded cheese (if desired), and bake at 350°F until sauce and cheese are bubbly.  Top with sliced scallions and/or minced fresh chiles and serve with salsa and sour cream, if desired.

Other "from scratch" recipe ideas for Tex-Mex:

Tortilla Chips
Simply cut your corn or flour tortillas into strips or triangles (as desired), and fry in vegetable oil heated to 350°F until golden brown and crispy.  Remove from oil using a slotted spoon and drain on a plate lined with paper towels.  Season immediately with Kosher Salt and cayenne pepper, if desired.  Serve hot.

Taco Seasoning
Recipe from
Yields 1 oz seasoning
  • 1 Tbsp chili powder
  • 1/4 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/4 tsp onion powder
  • 1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 1/4 tsp dried oregano
  • 1/2 tsp paprika
  • 1 1/2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 tsp Kosher Salt
  • 1 tsp Freshly Ground Black Pepper
Mix all ingredients together and store in an airtight container.  Use to flavor sautéed ground beef, onions and garlic (or any other meat) for use in tacos, enchiladas, etc.

Good luck, and let me know how your Tex-Mex experiments go!