'Border Cooking' Simmers Close to the Home Ranch

Dishes of the Southwest, northern Mexico stick to basics


By Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison, Harvard Common Press, 500 pp., $14.95

If the ''ito'' of burrito indicates the diminutive of something larger, then calling the shredded beef wrapped in a flour tortilla they serve at Roberto's restaurants here a ''burrito'' is a real misnomer.

As they say in Arizona, this is one burro. It's simple - no light and dark sauces meticulously swirled by fork tong beneath the main event - it's tasty, it's hearty, and it is big. Big enough, for all but perhaps the most ravenous, to make a meal.

As such, Roberto's burrito is also the essence of border cooking - as in the US-Mexico border - as seen by Cheryl and Bill Jamison, two recognized authorities on the cooking of the American Southwest. The Jamisons are Santa Fe, N.M.-based cookbook and travel writers who in the past wowed food lovers with the award-winning ''Texas Home Cooking'' and ''Smoke & Spice'' cookbooks and have now come out with ''The Border Cookbook.'' This latest book casts a new light on the ''authentic home cooking of the American Southwest and Northern Mexico.''

What sets border cooking apart for the Jamisons is the way it remains true to its roots. Whereas Southwest cuisine is influenced by everything from French sauces to Asian spices, Mr. Jamison says, what he calls ''border cooking'' sticks to the basics - beef, cheese, chiles, beans, corn, flour tortillas - of the simple but hearty ranch cooking it comes from.

And while Southwest cuisine is now most notably practiced by cooks from outside the region, Jamison adds, border cooking is still at its best in the home or, short of that, in the unpretentious cafes and restaurants that have sprung from someone's home cooking.

Roberto's is one example of that leap. What started with Roberto Robledo's wife selling homemade tortillas in San Ysidro, Calif., has grown to more than 50 Roberto's restaurants in San Diego and southern Nevada.

The Jamisons' book is not just a collection of recipes, but also a guide to food of the border region. Filled with tips on where to find some of the best examples of the dishes it features, the book becomes a worthwhile companion to any food enthusiast traveling the border region.

It's thanks to the book that this writer found Roberto's machaca (shredded meat) breakfast burro - er, burrito - for example.

What led to the book was the Jamisons' realization that authentic Southwest cooking and what Mexicans call Norteno cooking have more in common with each other than with the cuisines of the rest of their respective countries.

''Norteno cooking is much less sophisticated, uses fewer ingredients, and depends on more basic preparation than the cuisine of central and southern Mexico,'' Jamison says.

Yet what also makes the border region a likely topic for a cookbook is its tremendous variety. The basics hold from Texas and Tamaulipas to southern California and Baja California, Jamison says, but it's hard to get bored with food that shifts from Texas's just-meat (no beans) chili to New Mexico's rich use of chiles - brought north by Spanish conquistadors, themselves recent but enthusiastic converts to the spicy peppers.

Then there are the chimichangas - a deep-fried burrito the Jamisons consider Arizona's most notable contribution to border cooking, Sonora's big flour tortillas, and the huge, tasty shrimp of Baja California, brush- ed perhaps with a chile sauce.

''The Border Cookbook'' is all the more interesting because it comes out at a time when the US, for reasons largely tied to economic fears and electoral politics, seems to be busy denying that the border is one region that includes parts of two countries.

The first intent in writing ''The Border Cookbook'' was certainly not to make a political statement. Jamison says he doubts all the fence-building and border-closing fervor on the US side will affect the contact and communication that have given the region its distinctive cooking.

Well into the 19th century, the Southwest and northern Mexico really were one, Jamison notes, and the region's cooking still reflects that.

''I'm sure the cross-fertilization will continue, but I also have to think it will be difficult for this [anti-open-border climate] not to have an effect. On the other hand, I see NAFTA continuing,'' he adds, ''with all the potential for trade and exchange, including food, that an agreement like that entails.''

The Jamisons will be watching the border's evolution as they research their cookbooks and write their travel guides. And true to their region, they'll be doing a lot of home cooking.

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