Flavors of southwest will spice up meals

November 19, 2012

We’ve just returned from a long weekend in Tucson, eating our way through town and up into the mountains surrounding the city. From simple chili to spicy huevos rancheros, crunchy carne seca tacos and chimichangas, we savored the flavors of this beautiful desert community. Although it can be difficult to distinguish styles of Mexican-influenced food, the locals in this area characterize their cuisine as Sonoran, from the native peoples who’ve inhabited the nearby lands for centuries.

For many generations, this agricultural society relied on corn, cactus and wild game for food. In the 17th century, the Spanish began to expand control from their settlements in the south and west, establishing missions in southern Arizona. Along with the practice of enforced labor, they introduced cattle, sheep, chickens and wheat – important additions to the basic diet of the native tribes. With dependable new sources of protein and a grain crop (winter wheat) to supplement the drought-challenged corn, they reduced their dependence on hunting to survive.

Before the Spanish arrived, the practice of drying strips of venison or buffalo meat was the typical method of meat preservation (think jerky). With the availability of domesticated cattle, the process was adapted to dehydrating thin slices of beef into carne seca for longer-term storage. When needed as an ingredient, pieces were pounded and cooked with liquid until tender. Tacos made from this meat have an entirely different texture and richness than those made with simmered ground beef.

In addition to their signature carne seca tacos, we found an amusing tale of accidental culinary invention on the menu at El Charro Café, the oldest restaurant in Tucson. Family legend claims Monica Flin, who founded the restaurant in 1922, was frustrated when a burrito fell into the deep fryer. She held back her cuss words because her young nieces and nephews were in the kitchen and called out “chimichanga” (Spanish for “thingamajig”). The name stuck and the recipe lasted: soft tortilla shells filled with meat, vegetables and spices are rolled up, fried and served with cheese and a spicy sauce.

On a side trip to Tombstone, we had the chance to enjoy a bowl of chili. It was more like the version cowboys would find at a chuck wagon on the trail than what’s served at the chain restaurant of the same name. Never made with beans or ground meat and often with multiple varieties of meat, such as a mixture of beef and pork. The chopped chunks of meat are seared, then simmered until tender and mixed at the end of the cooking time with a paste of roasted chilis. We had ours with warm cornbread topped with butter (see photo).

Another delicious discovery comes under the heading of beans. Frijoles refritos are not actually translated as “refried,” rather as “well-cooked,” and in this part of the world, they’re unlike anything that comes from a can. Pinto beans are simmered until soft, then drained and mashed. This lumpy pile is sautéed in lard or bacon drippings until it pulls away from the sides of the skillet. Once seasoned, it’s tucked into enchiladas or served as a side dish, often garnished with queso fresca.

The best beans I had during the trip weren’t fried at all, but simmered with spices into a dish called frijoles de la olla (beans in a pot). Unlike refried beans, which can be made with canned beans, this dish needs to begin with a fresh batch of dried beans. These should be light in your hand and sound almost hollow when you pour them into a container; if they look brown or wizened, they’re past their prime. Be sure to pick over the beans as they soak to remove any rocks or twigs; follow that by several rinses of fresh water to remove any caked-on dirt.

In the interest of heart health, I’ve not included recipes for deep-frying chimichangas or re-frying beans in lard. Instead here are instructions for a fiery chili and basic frijoles de la olla – traditional flavors of the Sonoran Desert.


2 lb beef chuck
1 T canola oil
12-oz can beef broth
12-oz can tomato sauce
1 t salt
6 dried red chilies
1/4 C water
3 minced garlic cloves
1 T oregano

Trim off any excess fat and cut the beef into one-inch cubes. Dry the surface of the meat with a paper towel.

Heat the canola oil in a large pot and add the beef cubes. Cook, stirring often, until starting to brown. Deglaze the pot with the beef broth, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom. Stir in the tomato sauce and salt. Cover and simmer over very low until the meat is fork tender, about 2 hours, adding more broth if necessary. Meanwhile, prepare the chili paste.

Rinse dried chiles to remove any dirt; cut off the tops and slit them lengthwise, removing seeds and pith. Heat a small skillet over medium high and roast the dried chiles for about 3 minutes, turning often to avoid burning.

Pour hot water over the chiles and let them soak for about 30 minutes. Remove the chiles from the water and place them in a blender with 1/4 C water and puree until smooth. Add garlic and oregano; pulse to combine. Stir the chile puree into the pot and gently simmer for an additional 30 minutes.

Frijoles de la Olla

3 C dried beans
2 t salt
1 T canola oil
1 chopped onion
3 minced garlic cloves
1 chopped jalapeño (optional)

Inspect the beans to remove small stones and other debris. Soak the beans in hot water for about 5 minutes, stirring often to loosen any dirt.

Repeat the soaking and stirring a few more times until the water remains clear. Fill a large soup pot or Dutch oven two-thirds full with water. Bring the water to a rolling boil over high heat. Add salt and canola oil; return to a rolling boil and add beans. Once the pot returns to a boil, let it cook at that rate for about 3 minutes.

Turn down the heat to medium-low, keeping the water at a true simmer. Cook for 2 hours, making sure water does not boil off. Add onion, garlic and pepper (if using); continue cooking until beans are tender and broth has thickened, about 30 minutes.

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