I haven’t always appreciated Mexican food, and that’s probably to be expected from a girl who grew up in Northwest Florida, and whose main exposure to “Mexican” food was the nachos plate at football games. In other words, I didn’t know Mexican food from a hole in the ground.
I recall only one time we went to a Mexican restaurant in all my growing up days in Florida. It was at Sombrero, a small family-owned restaurant on Highway 98 in Parker that is still in business today. Dad wanted to try it out, as we had driven by it many, many times over the years going from St. Joe Beach to Panama City. Mom wasn’t too excited about it, as she held the firm belief that "all Mexican food tastes the same." However, she gave in once and we went into Sombrero.
I don’t remember much about it, honestly. I believe I had some sort of a burrito and I liked it pretty well. But, in the long run, we never went back, so I guess neither mom nor dad fell in love with the place, though even today it has numerous fans.
My next experience with “Mexican” food was during my years in Pensacola as a student at UWF. My friends Lisa, Denise, Debbie and I would stop by the nearby Taco Bell during finals, eating nachos bel grandes or tacos. Not exactly authentic, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was good and cheap for us college students. Plus, our dear friend David worked there after classes, and we were rather social people who enjoyed talking and laughing over nachos more than studying.
David, in later years, took my sister and me to a really good Mexican restaurant for lunch in Pensacola. It was called Cactus Flower Cafe. It was truly delicious, and a lot different from the fast food tacos we had eaten 25 years earlier as students, you can be sure! We had a wonderful meal, with more of a fresh, California-style twist on Mexican cuisine.
But it was Texas that taught me to enjoy Mexican food; actually, Tex-Mex, though I’ve also had the pleasure eating at some authentic taquerias and restaurants in Texas that had traditional dishes you might find on tables in many homes in Mexico. But it’s the Tex-Mex style that appeals to me most. I think it’s because it has that perfect blend of real Mexican recipes with some Southern flavor woven in. I’ve had delicious enchiladas, as well as a more Southern-style enchilada casserole, for example. Both of them are wonderful, though quite different from one another.
One of my favorite things to eat is an authentic pork tamale…or three. I’ve had them in restaurants, which is always excellent, but my favorite tamales are those sold by family members of some mother or grandmother who makes them in their kitchen. Tamale making is not a simple process, so I don’t make them myself. When someone at work begins the sentence, “My abuela is making some tamales this weekend, do you…” the answer is always and immediately “yes.” They’re so tender and mildly spicy. They’re good with a nice Tex-Mex queso drizzled over them, or with a bit of chili scooped over them, topped with chopped jalapeños and onions. Many Texans eat some variation of this on Christmas Eve, which is a nice tradition, I think. It’s a nice break from all the turkey and ham we tend to take in during November and December.
In East Texas, there are many, many options for eating out and enjoying good Tex-Mex food. But sometimes, I prefer staying in my own kitchen and making some Tex-Mex inspired recipes for our family. Are they authentically Mexican? No. Are they devoured by everyone I serve them to? Yes siree, they are. And that’s what makes me happy.
Here are a few of my favorites that I hope you’ll enjoy, as well. Let me know what you think:firstname.lastname@example.org.
First, this easy, flavorful chicken bakes up quickly while you relax or help the kids with their homework. And it's incredibly flavorful!
Saucy baked enchilada chicken
1 (10-oz.) can red enchilada sauce (mild or hot, your choice)
1 (14-oz.) can diced tomatoes
Juice of 1 lime
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp. cumin
1 1/2 to 2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 1/2 c. shredded Monterrey jack
1 small can (3 or 4 ounces) diced green chiles
1/4 c. sliced black olives
1/2 avocado, cubed
Sour cream for topping
Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
Spray a 9x13" baking dish with cooking spray. Place in it the boneless chicken breasts.Salt and pepper the chicken.
In a medium mixing bowl, combine the enchilada sauce, diced tomatoes, lime juice, garlic, cumin, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Whisk together well, then pour over the chicken.
Place in the oven for about 40 minutes. Pull out, top with the cheese, then bake for four or five more minutes to allow the cheese to melt.
Remove from oven, and allow to set for five minutes. Then decide how to proceed;
1. You can shred the chicken in the sauce using two forks, then use it as a filling for tortillas to make soft tacos. Top with cubed avocado, sliced black olives, and sour cream.
2. Serve whole chicken pieces over a bed of rice with plenty of sauce spooned over it. Top with sour cream, olives, and avocado cubes.
Next, this is the perfect weeknight supper, if you're a Tex-Mex fan. Gooey layers of chicken, cheese and tortillas combine to make a casserole you and your family will devour!
5-ingredient chicken-enchilada casserole
9 corn tortillas
16 to 20 ounce can of red enchilada sauce
1 rotisserie chicken
3 cups Mexican blend shredded cheese
1 small can chopped green chiles
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Spray a 9"x13" casserole dish with cooking spray.
Pull all the meat off the chicken, and place in a bowl with about 1/2 cup of the enchilada sauce; toss to coat chicken well.
In the dish, spread about 1/4 cup enchilada sauce across the bottom of the dish.
Place 3 tortillas across the bottom of the dish.
Top with 1/3 of the chicken, then about 1/3 of the sauce, then a cup of the cheese.
Begin the next layer, following the same pattern: tortillas, chicken sauce, and this time add the whole can of green chiles. Top with cheese.
Add one more layer of tortillas, chicken, sauce, and cheese.
Bake at 375 for about 20 minutes, or until everything is bubbly and melted. Allow to sit for about ten minutes before serving.
My last recipe uses ingredients that are easily found in any grocery store; they may even be in your cabinet already! You can even substitute for things you don't have, and use what's on hand. Easy and so good!
Mexican skillet pasta
8 to 10 ounces pasta, cooked according to package directions
1 bell pepper (I prefer red), chopped
1 small onion, chopped
one packet taco seasoning (or fajita seasoning; alternatively, make your own blend)
1 small can tomato sauce
1 can whole kernel corn
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 small can chopped green peppers
Soft white cheese, like queso fresco, goat cheese, or cream cheese
1. In a large skillet, brown the pepper and onion in warm oil. When softened, add corn, beans, seasoning packet, and green peppers, stirring until seasoning has coated everything well.
2. Stir in cooked pasta, mixing ingredients well, and add the tomato sauce, stirring well.
3. Allow the pasta to heat over medium heat, being careful not to scorch the bottom. Salt and pepper to taste.
4. Drop in spoonfuls of cheese, stir in gently as it begins to melt. Cheese doesn't have to completely melt before serving.
5. Serve up in bowls and enjoy!
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is "Mama Steph." She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three young adult sons who are considerably taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at whatsouthernfolkseat.com.