For a little more than a year, Houston’s “Enchilada Queen,” Sylvia Casares, has been pouring her culinary secrets into a cookbook that she hopes will shine a positive spotlight on Tex-Mex cuisine.
Tex-Mex food “is so misunderstood and maybe it doesn’t have a great reputation but I really believe it’s because people who have tasted it a) don’t really know what they’re getting, and b) maybe what they’re getting really wasn’t so good,” said Casares, who owns Sylvia’s Enchilada Kitchen.
In “The Enchilada Queen Cookbook” Casares shares 80 recipes including her famous enchiladas and many of the dishes she grew up eating. Set to launch nationwide on Nov. 1, the book has already earned praise from Publishers Weekly, which gave it a starred review dubbing it “the only Tex-Mex cookbook you’ll ever need.”
Casares will be at Blue Willow Bookshop on Nov. 1 at 7 p.m. for the official cookbook launch and will teach teach a class at Central Market on Nov. 4 as part of her book tour. She talked to us about her book, shared some tips and gave us her recipe for caldo de pollo.
How did you get into doing a cookbook?
The idea came up because I teach cooking classes and my students would always be asking me, when are you going to do a cookbook? I have been teaching for 10 years and I always had it in my mind that I wanted to do a cookbook. I just never really busied myself because it’s a ton of work and it’s complicated if you’re going to do it right. Little by little I figured out what the best approach was. I ended up finding an agent and we went to New York and met with several publishers and we were able to sell the cookbook, which is kind of amazing because a lot of chef and restaurant cookbooks are self-published.
Did you incorporate the recipes that teach?
Yeah, those recipes and then of course I added more and then there are a number of recipes that are not recipes that I’ve ever served at the restaurant but just good recipes that I grew up on. You know, like arroz con pollo, fideo, polvorones, caldo de res, capirotada, gorditas ... just different types of foods that we eat. I’m from the Texas-Mexican border so these are foods that are extremely classic, extremely popular down there but that I don’t serve at my restaurant.
Tell me about the process of writing the book.
The first thing we did was a cookbook proposal and with the cookbook proposal we went to New York. Beyond that I took food samples because I used to be in food sales and the best and the quickest and the easiest way to sell food is to sample it. I took a couple of my sauces, my mole, my chili gravy and my salsa verde, and we rolled enchiladas and served it to them. This one particular publisher fell in love with the idea of it being an enchilada kitchen. She’s from Forth Worth so she kind of understood because one of the challenges that our food has is that perhaps people don’t understand it. The name of this cuisine, Tex-Mex, has a little bit of a black eye because a lot of people have only tasted what they’ve eaten at a restaurant and restaurants don’t necessarily serve the best or the most authentic. Some do, many don’t. And so if they’ve had something that’s so-so, then they think that’s it, it’s very greasy or it doesn’t have any flavor. Well, if it’s done right, it’s gonna be good.
Can you share some tips and tricks from the cookbook?
One of them, for example, is using Knorr caldo de pollo (bouillon); it’s just done all over Mexico and all over South Texas. People just use that as a flavor booster. The other thing, and this I grew up using, is what we ended up calling the Holy Trinity of Tex Mex, which is cumin seeds, black peppercorns and fresh garlic and we make a paste out of it. It’s kind of a core recipe that goes with a number of my recipes and it really just delivers that fresh home flavor. We grind it in the molcajete. It might be just a little more work but the flavor it delivers is amazing. I’m a big preacher of don’t use too many shortcuts because you’ll lose flavor.
Another point in my cookbook is about salt. The role of salt in a recipe is as a flavor enhancer so if I put together a recipe and every ingredient in the recipe is in perfect proportion and balance to get to my desired flavor but my salt is really low or God forbid I forgot the salt. Say it’s supposed to be 2 teaspoons of salt and I only put in one, your flavors are going to be sleepy or dull. Adding that extra teaspoon is going to bring it to the optimum level and optimum flavor. So my whole point is salt is an ingredient that you need to measure with great care. It drives me nuts when I go to the cooking channel and the chef just grabs the salt and throws it in there al chanclazo. In my book, everything is precise, everything is measured.
What would you tell people not familiar with Tex-Mex cuisine to encourage them to give these recipes a try?
I would ask them to give it a try and to look at the recipes. They don’t have a lot of oil, they use fresh ingredients. And I have to tell you, all the recipes are delicious, because I’ve had it in my mind since I wrote the book that I wanted this book to win awards and that it had to pass muster anywhere. That was my goal. I didn’t just want to put a cookbook out at la carrera, in a rush. I felt it had to be done right, I had to represent the cuisine for what it is. It can be healthy, I mean I eat it everyday and I’m healthy. It’s gotten a bad rap that it’s bad for you but that’s not necessarily true.
Sylvia’s Caldo de Pollo (chicken vegetable soup)
From The Enchilada Queen Cookbook by Sylvia Casares with Dotty Griffith
Makes 8 servings
- 2 to 2½ pounds white and dark meat chicken pieces, bone-in and skin-on
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 cup chopped white onion
- ½ cup coarsely chopped tomato
- 2 garlic cloves, smashed
- 4 teaspoons chicken base or Knorr chicken bouillon
- ½ cup sliced carrot
- ½ cup sliced celery
- 1 ear corn on the cob, cut into
- 2-inch lengths
- ½ cup coarsely chopped calabacita or zucchini
- 1 unpeeled red or russet potato, coarsely chopped to make ½ cup
In a large saucepan or stockpot over high heat, combine the chicken pieces, 2 quarts water, and the salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 25 minutes. Set aside off the heat for 10 minutes.
In a blender jar or work bowl of a food processor, process the onion, tomato, garlic, and ¼ cup water for 20 seconds, or until smooth.
Using a slotted spoon, remove the chicken to a large bowl. When cool enough to handle, pull off skin and tear meat from the bones in small pieces. Discard the skin and bones. Return the chicken meat and any accumulated juices to the pot with the broth.
Place the pot over low heat. Add the chicken base and bring to a simmer. Stir well to dissolve the base.
Stir in the processed onion and tomato mixture, the carrot, celery, and corn; simmer for about 10 minutes.
Add the calabacita and potatoes. Simmer for about 10 minutes, just until the potatoes can be pierced easily with a fork. Serve.
White-meat-only option: In a large saucepan or stockpot over high heat, combine 1½ to 2 pounds bone-in, skin-on chicken breast, 2 quarts water, and 1 teaspoon salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for about 20 minutes. Proceed as above beginning with step 2.