My Dad grew up in the deserts and mountains of southern Arizona. He learned to ride horses, shoot, and rope. He worked as a ranch hand, fixing fences and herding cattle in the mountain summers to pay his way through college, divinity school, and one of those fancy east coast universities.
Though he rarely went back to Arizona after moving east – taking a family of five cross country on a teacher’s salary wasn’t an easy proposition – Dad loved the American Southwest. He loved the landscape and the stories, the people and their histories. He loved the food. I mean he really loved the food.
There weren’t a lot of Mexican restaurants in small-town central Ohio in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, so my mom – a Scots/Canadian white lady from Cleveland – learned to cook Mexican food, and specifically the Tucson style Sonoran dishes my dad loved and missed. She learned to horde quality ingredients we brought back from family trips, or that my grandparents brought packed into their bags when they came to visit: dried chilies, jarred salsas, green corn tamales, good quality corn tortillas, and the paper thin Tucson style flour tortillas that make a chimichanga a delicious, crisp treat instead of a greasy, soggy cheese-sodden mess. Everyone we knew thought nachos and boxed tacos were spicy Mexican food, but our freezer was full of southwestern specialties our friends and neighbors had never even heard of.
I primarily learned to cook Mexican food from my mom on those Friday nights in Ohio – but my grandparents neighbor Maria taught me other parts – like how to cut peppers. I learned more as I moved around the country, tried other variations of the incredibly diverse American border cuisines, and read about the rich culinary traditions of Mexican and border cultures.
My Dad died a year ago this week after struggling with Alzheimer’s Disease for nearly a decade. I’m happy that he missed out on a so very strange exceptionally not good train wreck of a year, but of course I miss him. Everyday. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what I should do to remember him this week, but then I remembered that I’m me, so the answer is to cook all the things he loved.
This one’s for Dad.
We’ll start with the basics, the building blocks, the good stuff – because once we’ve got that down, we can build nearly anything we want from those basics.
Tortillas, Beans, Meat, and Rice.
We’ll use those building blocks to make some really delicious at home Sonoran style food. In later years, after leaving the Church, Dad would have had a Negro Modelo with it, but a Margarita, a tall glass of cool water, or even a glass of that fancy California wine goes just fine.
Tucson Style Flour Tortillas
If there’s anything at the heart of Sonoran food, it’s flour tortillas. Sure, there are corn tortillas too, but the flour varieties are one of the things that makes Sonoran foods stand out from other border styles and from the traditional cucinas of central Mexico. Sonoran flour tortillas aren’t the puffy, doughy things you find on grocery shelves in most of the country (and the world for that matter). They’re paper thin, usually made with lard (though duck fat and shortening versions are possible for those who don’t eat pork or animal products) and they’re often hand stretched to make them even thinner. That thin sheet of perfect tortilla is key to making two of the dishes later in this edition (Cheese Crisp and Chimichanga) – and while you can simply substitute pre-made tortillas, making them is actually a lot of fun.
Makes a passel of tortillas
1 cup AP flour
1 cup bread flour
1 tsp kosher salt
¼ cup lard (preferred), duck fat, or vegetable shorting (do no use liquid oil)
¾ cup boiling water
Add the flour, salt, and lard to the bowl of a food processor or to a stand mixer fitted with a paddle attachment. Process until the flour looks like a coarse meal.
Gradually pour in the water, while mixing, until a smooth dough has formed.
Transfer the dough to a covered container or zip top bag and allow to rest refrigerated or at a cool room temp for at least 30 minutes and up to 4 hours.
Form the dough into balls depending on the size of the tortilla you want.
For a burrito/Chimi/Cheese Crisp size, form approximately 2-2 ½ inch balls.
For taco sized (or Sonoran style burros) form balls of approximately 1 inch.
Heat a thick bottomed pan, Comal, or griddle over medium heat. Do not add any fat.
Using a well-floured board and pin, roll out the tortillas nearly as thin as possible.
Stretch the tortilla slightly – pulling around the edges – to make them even thinner. This is the key to making them different than the puffy TexMex tortillas you’re used to.
Grill for 30 seconds, or until very small bubbles form in the dough, then turn.
Continue cooking, turning at least once more, until the tortilla is blistered, puffy, and cooked through.
Remove from the heat and cover with a towel until cool, then wrap tightly.
Tortillas can be rewarmed on a griddle (or in a microwave if you’re lazy like me.)
Unlike most folks of our era and in our part of the country, I don’t think I ever saw a can of beans or worse – a can of refried beans – in our house. Like ever. Don’t buy canned refried beans. Seriously. Just don’t. They taste like what they look like and I’m not even gonna say the things I think they look like because I don’t feel like gaging at the moment. My mom taught me to make beans. She used a crock pot, dried beans, an unpeeled onion, and whatever fatty, slightly smoky, pork product she had – hocks, bacon, bit of ham. And she made a LOT of beans. Every couple of months Mom would churn out a huge batch that went into plastic bags in the freezer to be fetched out on Friday nights, used in chimichangas, or mashed into refried beans as a side, a filling, or a teen’s tactical food fighting weapon.
These pintos are the base for both charro (cowboy beans) and refried beans - and they’re great with any meal including these enchiladas.
Makes 2 cups of cooked beans
1 cup dried pinto beans.
5 cups water (or chicken stock)
2 strips fatty, smokey bacon
1 medium onion, trimmed, washed – but not fully peeled
1 bay leaf
½ tsp ground cumin
2 tsp kosher salt
There are two ways to approach these beans. Either soak the beans the night before (and use the soaking water for cooking) or simply cook them all day. I prefer the all-day cook as the flavored liquid really permeates the beans. I’m also lazy, which means that “cook them all day” often means just throw all the stuff in the pressure cooker and let it do its thing. Sometimes I just let them simmer away on the stove top all day because it makes the house smell like I’m living inside a delicious burrito and that makes me happy.
You can tweak this however you want – my most common variations are adding a single dried chili (usually Guajillo or Chipotle Meco – an amazing chalky looking variety with a lot more flavor than the more common Chipotles used to make powders in the states). Or, you could add a little dried Epazote, an herb with a mild cilantro like flavor that’s supposed to um, reduce some of beans’ characteristic effects.
Choose an onion without any black mildew, and clean off the thin root end, but the paper skin actually adds flavor and its worth keeping it on. The fattier the bacon the better. But seriously, just put everything into a pot and cook it. That’s the recipe. The beans are done when they’re tender. In a pressure cooker this will take about 90 minutes. On a stove top, 4 hours or more. After cooking, discard the onion, bay leaf, and any particularly gnarly pieces of pork.
To make Charro Beans
2 cups cooked pinto beans (1 recipe above) plus cooking liquid
1 tbsp lard or oil
1 tbsp loosely packed chopped cilantro
1 jalapeño or 1 serrano pepper
1 medium tomato
½ small onion
1 tsp red wine or red wine vinegar
Salt to taste
Remove the stem and finely mince the chili. For a mild but flavorful chili, use jalapeño. If you want more spice, use Serrano. Or both.
Peel, trim, and finely mince the onion.
Deed and finely dice the tomato.
Add the oil to a pan over medium heat.
Add the chilies, tomato, onion and cilantro and cook until the onions are translucent.
Add the cooked beans, cooking liquid, and vinegar or wine and bring to a low simmer.
Cook for 10-15 minutes (so the aromatics infuse the beans) and taste for seasoning.
Keep in mind that as a side, beans can handle a lot of salt but if you’re using them as a filling, you may want to lessen the salt to account for other salty ingredients like meats and cheeses and salsas.
To Make Refried Beans
My mom made these with a potato masher. I’m more partial to a stick blender or even a quick trip through the Vitamix.
2 cups cooked pinto beans (1 recipe above) plus cooking liquid
2 tbsp lard or oil
Salt to taste
Using a potato masher, stick blender, or blender, process until as smooth as desired. Keep warm until serving. If too thin, simmer until thickened. If too thick, add additional cooking liquid. Season to taste with the same codicil as above – use less salt if intended as a filling. Top with cheese. Use as a side, a delicious taco/burrito filling, or masonry restoration medium.
Whenever we’d visit my grandparents in Tucson, we’d eat out at a series of different Mexican restaurants. This was for two reasons. Firstly, my grandmother -- who lost her sense of smell due to some vague medical issue when she was young – was an appallingly bad cook. She chose shockingly bad pastel colored 1970s recipes and then prepared them in … well, really it’s too difficult to talk about. We ate out. The second reason was that there were a lot of great places in town. My grandfather, adorned as always with a crew cut, a short sleeved “dress” shirt, a thick New Jersey accent, and a turquoise accented bolo tie, would always order even before the menus arrived.
“I’ll have the Carne Seca.”
They knew him at the door. El Charro and his favorite – “Midway Molina’s,” really Molina’s Midway – a Tucson institution that closed in 2017. He always ordered the Carne Seca, always tipped well, and his personal style was a nod to a bye-gone era – even when – in the early ‘80s - that era wasn’t quite gone by.
Carne Seca is dried beef. According to Harry’s tall tales, the local ranchers used to simply cut long thin slices off a side of beef and throw it up on the metal roof to dry in the incredibly hot, incredibly dry Sonoran sun. We thought he was joking. He wasn’t. Today, known elsewhere as Machaca, and a lot of places it’s a breakfast food but it’s acceptable at every meal in the Sonoran cuisine Dad grew up with. Today, it’s not usually made from the soaked, pounded, seasoned, and boiled beef Harry was describing, but the technique we’ll use here replicates some of the texture and a lot of the flavor. It’s a little involved, but it’s totally worth it. Promise.
Choose a cut of beef that will yield long fibers when pulled. The most traditional is strip steak, a chuck roast will work well, but I’ve actually had the best results with cheap roasting cuts like eye of round.
~2 lbs beef roast
2 cups chicken or beef stock
4 med/mild dried chilis (Guajillo, California, Ancho, or Passilla – mix and match if you want)
1 medium onion
1 small carrot
1 stalk celery
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp salt
¼ cup cider or red wine vinegar
Preheat your oven to 350°F.
Add all ingredients to a Dutch oven.
Cook until the beef is falling apart – about 3-4 hours.
Note: you can also perform this step in a pressure cooker without any real loss of flavor or texture. Pressure cooker cooking time will be about 1 hr.
Remove the meat, reserving the liquid and the chilis, but discarding the other aromatics and allow the meat to cool until comfortable to handle.
Reduce the oven temperature to ~250°F (or preheat if using a pressure cooker).
Shred the beef using two forks. The smaller the threads, the better.
Transfer the shredded beef to a sheet pan, spreading it evenly across the pan.
Bake for 15 minutes, stir well, and bake an additional 15 minutes. The shredded meat should be mostly dry.
Remove the meat from the oven and allow to cool.
Add the reserved liquid, an additional 1 cup of water or stock, and the reserved chilis to the container of a blender. Blend until smooth.
Add the dried beef and chili puree to a pot and simmer until the meat is once again tender and has absorbed most of the liquid.
Taste for seasoning and add salt. I often add a small measure of sugar at this point.
Use for burros, tacos, or as a filling for Chimichangas.
The red rice on most Mexican restaurant plates was my least favorite part of a meal – until I realized I could mix it with the beans, shredded lettuce, and sour cream to form an unholy delicious train wreck of flavor. Then it became the starchy backbone of … well, whatever that mess is/was and now it doesn’t really seem like a plate without it.
1 cup medium grained rice
8 oz tomato juice (or 1/4 cup tomato puree plus 1/4 cup water)
¼ cup water
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp loosely packed chopped cilantro leaves and stems
1 clove garlic
½ tsp kosher salt
½ tsp ground cumin
Mix garlic, cilantro, water, tomato juice, salt, and cumin and bring to a simmer.
In an additional lidded pan, over medium heat, add oil and rice. Cook the rice in oil stirring constantly, until the rice has all taken on an opaque color – usually about 3-5 minutes.
Add the hot tomato broth to the rice, stir to combine, and cover.
Reduce heat to the lowest setting and allow to steam for 20 minutes.
Remove the lid, fluff with a fork, and keep warm until service.
I don’t actually know how authentic this is. I know that this is how we started a lot of meals in Tucson, and even more at home - especially if my dad was “helping” to cook. In general, dad’s cooking was a lot like his mother’s, but he could make eggs, and he could make Cheese Crisps. Like a lot of Sonoran recipes, this isn’t so much a detailed list of perfectly measured ingredients as it is a general list of vague instructions.
Large flour tortillas
Butter, lard, or oil
Preheat your oven to 400°F.
Take a large tortilla, slather both sides with butter, lard, or oil.
Slide into the oven, directly on the rack or on a rack placed on a sheet pan.
Toast for a few minutes, or until just barely starting to color.
Top with shredded cheese, and roasted chili strips.
Return to the oven and cook until the cheese is melted and bubbling.
Tear of cheesy crispy chunks and enjoy.
The Chimichanga is, in my opinion, the king of Sonoran style cuisine. Really it’s a deep fried burrito. Burritos are delicious. Fried is delicious. Who doesn’t want a fried burrito? The real key here is the thin flour tortilla. That blistery surface yields a crisp chimi that doesn’t soak up all the oil and turn into a sodden oil sponge. There’s apparently some controversy about where and how the Chimichanga was invented, but it’s definitely a southern Arizona specialty and it was my go to order whenever we visited. Since, as I mentioned above, we ate out pretty much every night, that usually meant I ate something like 6 Chimichangas in a week. I not only survived, I thrived – though I did possibly develop an unhealthy desire to fry everything.
4 Flour Tortillas
1 cup prepared carne seca
1 cup prepared pinto beans
1 cup shredded cheese
Set up your fryer, or a deep skillet with enough oil to just barely cover the chimichangas. Preheat the fryer oil to 325°F.
Warm the tortillas in a pan or microwave.
To each tortilla, add meat, beans, and cheese.
Roll the Chimichangas as you would a burrito. Fold 1/3 of the tortilla over the fillings, fold in the sides of the tortilla, then roll tightly. You’ll want these to be small, tidy packets. Chimichangas shouldn’t be college campus burrito as big as your head” monstrosities (though those definitely have a place in my personal history.)
Gently lower into the oil seam side down. Ladle hot oil over the top. Once the chimi begins to brown, gently turn it over.
Fry until evenly golden brown.
Serve on a plate with rice, beans, shredded lettuce, chopped tomatoes, and sour cream or crema Mexicana – as well as the salsa of your choice.
The Sonoran Hotdog
This week’s dessert isn’t. I didn’t make a dessert and I didn’t want to leave one of my favorite items off. So, this is the world’s best worst dessert.
When I said the Chimichanga was king of Sonoran style cuisine, I was serious, but this dish is either the heir to the throne, or a serious contender. Sonoran Hot Dogs, or Danger Dogs as we called them when I was a kid, weren’t really part of Dad’s memories of the desert. They appeared later; around the time I was in high school. I’m about 80% sure the first one I had was purchased from a truck in a gravel parking lot on one of the rare occasions my siblings and I talked my parents and grandparents into letting us borrow my grandfather’s cream colored, green vinyl-topped late 70s Ford LTD to drive to Nogales. We were kings of the highway in that thing. Kings.
The hotdog is something special. Refried beans, a grilled bacon-wrapped hot dog, pickled chilies, tomatoes, avocado, salsa, and mayo and or sour cream all tucked into a larger than normal roll (usually a Bolillo). It’s a mess, a satisfying, delicious, beer moping, heart stopping mess. You can find Bolillo rolls at any good Latin American market, but I’ve even found them in local groceries or at a local Whole Foods. if you can’t find them, a large sausage style roll will work just fine.
Makes 4 Sonoran Style Hot Dogs
4 pieces smokey bacon (ideally mesquite smoked)
4 bolillo, birote, or large suasage rolls
Cilantro leaves for garnish
Mayonnaise, Sour Cream, or a combination of both
Thin, spicy salsa
Wrap the hotdogs in the bacon and grill, fry, or roast until the bacon begins to crisp up and the dog is cooked through.
Slice the roll down the middle.
Add a hefty smear of refried beans.
Add the bacon-wrapped dog.
Top with pickled chilies, diced onion, diced tomatoes, and avocado.
Top that with sour cream, crema, mayo, or some combination thereof.
Add the spicy, thin salsa of your choice.
Garnish with cilantro leaves.