Cracking the code

For years we've struggled to make ordinary TexMex-dive cheese enchiladas at home. I was sure it couldn't be that complicated, considering that TexMex places all over the state seem able to crank it out cheap. We solved the tortilla and cheese part but ran into problems with the gravy. I kept looking up recipes or using canned stuff that got good reviews, but those sauces, while tasty, were absolutely not TexMex chili gravy; they tended to be what I think of as New Mexico chili sauce, very good in its way, but not TexMex. Finally I found a recipe for what we were aiming at, and it couldn't be simpler: a light roux made with 1/4 cup each of oil and flour, seasoned with chili powder (basically ancho), Mexican oregano, garlic powder, cumin, and salt, then thinned with 2 cups of stock or water. In other words, Southern biscuit gravy with a few extra spices, and Bob's your uncle.

I don't cook that much as a daily matter. My idea of a great meal, if my husband hasn't made something, is GrapeNuts or butter noodles. This week, however, I've caught the cooking bug. Since our tomato harvest is coming in, I whipped up some excellent gazpacho for lunch today. I also blanched, peeled, and seeded several pounds of the tomatoes for use in a dinner party we're having this weekend, with shrimp creole on the menu. Recently I've made Caesar salads complete with homemade dressing and croutons for dinner, then enjoyed them again for lunch the next day with leftover roast chicken. This week I went on a cookbook-buying spree and acquired a North African cookbook along books for Vietnamese banh mi (including how to make the bread at home), Vietnamese pho, and a variety of Thai dishes from a restaurant somewhere called Pok Pok.

We're also in the time of year when, besides the tomato harvest, we're getting covered up in eggplant and peppers. Luckily my husband has perfected a dozen or more excellent eggplant recipes, and this year has begun making terrific fermented pepper sauces as well.

For dessert this weekend we'll be serving a "Lemon butter pie" I ran into online: basically a Graham-cracker-butter crust filled with a lemon curd into which a solid cup of butter has been whisked. It's all assembled and chilling now, so we'll try it tonight and see if it's ready for guests. I used pounded-up Spekulaas cookies, the thinking man's Graham cracker.

We'll make the Shrimp creole with a lot of fantastic fish stock from nine redfish frames our neighbor gave us last week after he fileted them. Even after reduction, that yielded a solid gallon of fish stock in the freezer. Paul Prudhomme's Shrimp creole with fresh stock is just the best stuff imaginable, though normally we get by just fine with a very quick stock made from the shrimp shells. It's hard to get them with the heads these days, but even if all you have is a shell with legs and tail it makes a perfectly lovely quick stock. Still, this redfish stock should be something special.


Uncle Bill said...

Well, now you gotta post the recipe!

Grim said...

“In other words, Southern biscuit gravy with a few extra spices, and Bob's your uncle.”

Around here, biscuit gravy is made with sausage drippings rather than oil, but definitely similar.

raven said...

So, what time should we be arriving? !!

Texan99 said...

Sausage or bacon drippings would surely work fine for chili gravy. I've read that some people use butter. I used ordinary cooking oil. By the time you add a lot of cumin and chili powder, the flavor of the oil isn't going to show through much.

DLSly said...

"In other words, Southern biscuit gravy with a few extra spices..."
A true Southern biscuit Gravy would NEVER use stock or water. It's milk, heavy cream, half and half -- or any combination, thereof.
Now, if you're talking about a "Sauce".......that's a whole different thing.

Grim said...

Now see what you’ve done? Bringing up Southern biscuits or anything associated with them always causes a stir.

I do use flour and water for the step Tex is calling making a roux (a step we didn’t have a name for, we just called it “now mix about two tablespoons of white flour with cold water to make a paste, and then add that paste to the sausage drippings; if you add the flour by itself you’ll get lumps in your gravy”). (Why anyone cared about lumps in sausage gravy, which is full of lumps of caramelized sausage anyway…)

After that step, I add the cream or whole milk, with cracked black pepper and salt to taste.

Texan99 said...

DLSly, you're right of course, I don't know what I was thinking. It's one of the basic French sauce techniques, but not Southern gravy. At least, none of the chili gravy recipes I've seen calls for dairy. You can see it's been too long since I made biscuits and gravy!

By the way, the Lemon Butter Pie was incredible once it had cooled thoroughly in the freezer. Definitely ready to wow guests this weekend. And these are the cookies I used for the crust:

DLSly said...

What am I going to do with you guys? 0>;~]
The flour is added directly to the hot grease in the pan - sifting keeps the lumps out -- to allow for the flour to cook out the raw flavor. (Hint: the longer you can cook the roux, the browner and more nuttier the flavor of the gravy. yummm) Water or stock does not allow for that, which is why you'll end up with a pasty base that will break once the milk is added. Sauces are started with stock and base flavors to which a roux is added to thicken. Now many people interchange sauce and gravy (I'm thinkin' of my Italian mob uncle who always called marinara "gravy"), but reality is otherwise.
Grim, your gravy sounds very good, but I would respectfully suggest an attempt at the tried and true method I learned at the knee of my born and bred Mountain William parents following recipes handed down through many generations. In fact, the only thing I've ever changed in that recipe is, every once in a while, I will throw a dash of paprika into the mix with the salt and pepper for a little "kick".
T99, when do we get the recipe??

Grim said...

Go ahead and type it up if you have time, T99. I'm going to add this post to the recipe sidebar.

Sly, I've actually frequently tried that method when I've been too lazy to mix up the paste. Like I said, I don't quite get the fear that there might be a lump in this kind of gravy -- a smooth brown pan gravy, for turkey or roast beef, maybe, but not sausage gravy for biscuits (sometimes called "Sawmill gravy" around here). I have to tell you I can't say it makes a big difference in the outcome: there's only about as much water as flour, and it evaporates quickly before I mix in the milk.

I learned that recipe from my mother, who was raised in Bearden, Tennessee. My biscuit recipe I learned from my grandmother from Mascot, Tennessee. It is as follows:

Grim's Grandmother's Southern Biscuits

2 cups White Lily (only!) self-rising flour (or substitute White Lily, only, all purpose flour, baking powder, salt, and baking soda)
1/4 cup reserved bacon grease (always reserve all bacon grease)
3/4 cup buttermilk

Mix until ingredients are barely combined and moist. Flour kneading surface and turn out mix. Add just enough flour to the top so that you can work it. Knead only about five times, then fold like a book (halfway in from each side, then fold the two halves one atop the other) to build the layers. Gently compress with fingers to appropriate height; cut biscuits with large Mason jar lid (floured as appropriate). Bake at 500 degrees until golden. Remove, paint tops with melted butter while still hot until they are shiny. Wait until they dull, then paint them again. Serve.

Grim said...

I should mention, for the completely uninitiated, that 'mix until ingredients are barely combined' is most easily done by first cutting the bacon fat into the flour with a knife until the pieces are pea-sized, then making a well and adding the buttermilk. Then stir. Otherwise you may end up building too much gluten while mixing it to the desired consistency, which will make the biscuits too stiff and not tender like Southern biscuits should be.

Also for that reason do not knead excessively. The evil gluten you've all heard about is a protein that builds in wheat through the kneading/working process. For many applications it's actually highly desirable, but for biscuits the aim is soft and tender, not firm and springy.

Texan99 said...

I've always started sauces with a roux, generally a light one for French sauces, then added the liquid (water, stock, dairy, wine, whatever) after the flour flavor was cooked.