Early Cal-Mex Fusion


Long before fast-food restaurants and beach cafes dotted the California landscape, California cuisine meant Mexican home cooking. California, after all, was once know as Alta California. For a century, Mexican foods and flavors were the culinary staples, and masa, tortillas, frijoles, salsas and hot peppers were the culinary tools with which home cooks worked.

When Spanish colonialists began arriving in California from Mexico in the 18th century, they brought their cooking traditions with them. According to “California Mission Cookery,” a book of recipes compiled by Mark Preston, the Spanish and Mexican cooking styles combined to form the original California cuisine. In the mission kitchens and on the ranchos, fresh California produce could be found, especially chiles, beans and corn.

Not until the mid 19th century, during and after the California Gold Rush, did American-style cooking become part of the California culinary experience. Even then, Mexican cooking thrived. With the westward expansion of the railroads through the 1880s, Anglos continued to settle in California and incorporate Mexican cooking into their lives.

Cookbooks compiled by charitable organizations began to appear with sections labeled “Spanish Recipes.” And in the June 25, 1911, edition of the Los Angeles Times, recipes for “tamales, tortillas, enchiladas and other famed Spanish dishes” filled several pages. The recipes were contributed by individuals throughout Southern California (mostly with Anglo names) as part of a cooking contest sponsored by The Times. Later that year, they were incorporated in “Los Angeles Times Cook Book Number Four,” now long out of print.


The article that accompanied the recipes noted that recipes for Mexican food in previous Times cookbooks “have been first in public favor

Here are three winning recipes that recapture the essence of early Mexican and Spanish California cooking. The pollo estofado (stewed chicken) was contributed by Mrs. L. Breuners of Oxnard, the tamale pie by Emma Gatzke of San Fernando and the calabacitas con quezo (summer squash with cheese) by Mrs. G.I. Kendrick of San Dimas.

Although these dishes are somewhat Americanized (the summer squash recipe calls for American cheese), they do use California-grown ingredients that give them an authentic flavor. The raisins and olives, for instance, nicely complement the meats and sauces.

STEWED CHICKEN (Pollo Estofado)


This cousin of a French etouffee cooks in a flavorful sauce.

1 (3 1/2- to 4-pound) chicken

Salt, pepper

3 green bell peppers


1 large onion, peeled

2 large tomatoes

2 heaping tablespoons lard or shortening

1 cup red wine


3 tablespoons sugar

1/2 cup seeded raisins

1/4 cup whole olives

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves


2 cups water, plus 3 tablespoons water

2 tablespoons flour

Season chicken with salt and pepper to taste inside and out.

Hold bell peppers over flame of gas burner or broil in oven until skins blister. Remove skins and seeds. Chop bell peppers, onion and tomatoes.


Melt lard over medium-high heat in 4-quart pot. When hot, put chicken in pot and turn to brown on all sides, 5 to 6 minutes. Add chopped onion, tomatoes and bell peppers and cook, stirring, 4 minutes.

Add wine, sugar, raisins, olives, cloves and salt and pepper to taste and stir to mix well. Add 2 cups water and stir. Cover and cook over low heat until juices run clear when chicken is pricked with fork, about 45 minutes. Check liquid during cooking and add more hot water if needed.

Remove chicken to hot platter. Combine 2 tablespoons flour with 3 tablespoons water and stir into pan juices. Bring to boil and cook, stirring, until thickened, 2 to 3 minutes. Pour over chicken and serve.

4 servings. Each serving:


701 calories; 420 mg sodium; 152 mg cholesterol; 39 grams fat; 39 grams carbohydrates; 40 grams protein; 1.32 grams fiber.


The Test Kitchen found that adding 1 egg and 1 tablespoon lard or shortening to the original 1911 recipe made a lighter crust and that pureeing the chile pulp (which the original recipe didn’t call for) made a smoother gravy.



1 pound beef chuck

1 1/2 pounds pork shoulder

1 bay leaf

1 onion, chopped


3 whole cloves

6 whole peppercorns




10 dried red chiles, such as New Mexico or California

3 tablespoons meat drippings, lard or shortening

3 tablespoons flour

1/2 teaspoon salt


2 cups reserved stock


1/2 cup reserved stock

3/4 cup cornmeal


1 egg

1 tablespoon lard


1/2 cup raisins


1 pint olives

MEAT Combine chuck, pork, bay leaf, onion, cloves, peppercorns and salt to taste in large pot with water to cover and cook over low heat until tender, about 2 1/2 hours. Remove beef and pork from pot. Strain stock and reserve 2 1/2 cups. Discard bay leaf, onion, cloves and peppercorns. Cut meat into 1-inch cubes.


Cut stem ends off chiles and soak overnight in cold water to cover. Remove seeds and veins and simmer in water to cover 30 minutes. Scrape pulp out of skins. Puree in blender and set aside.


Melt lard in saucepan over medium heat. Stir in flour and salt and cook over low heat, 3 to 4 minutes. Add 2 cups reserved stock and simmer, stirring, 3 to 4 minutes. Stir in chile puree, remove from heat and set aside.


Combine remaining 1/2 cup reserved meat stock, cornmeal, egg and lard and stir until thickened.



Sprinkle raisins evenly in bottom of 1 1/2-quart baking dish. Sprinkle olives over. Place meat cubes in layer on olives and pour Chile Gravy over. Spoon Cornmeal Crust mixture evenly over top.

Bake at 325 degrees until crust is golden brown, about 1 hour.

6 servings. Each serving:

562 calories; 1,715 mg sodium; 130 mg cholesterol; 33 grams fat; 34 grams carbohydrates; 35 grams protein; 2.18 grams fiber.



Pale green summer squash with scalloped edges also are known as scallops, pattypan squash or cymlings.

6 summer squash

1/2 teaspoon salt


1 pound American cheese

6 eggs, separated

2 tablespoons flour

Lard or shortening for frying


Cut squash into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Boil in salted water to cover until tender, about 5 minutes. Rinse and let cool. Cut cheese into 1/4-inch-thick slices. Make sandwiches of 2 squash slices and 1 cheese slice.

Beat egg whites until stiff. Stir in flour. Beat egg yolks and fold into egg whites. Melt lard over medium heat. Dip squash sandwiches in egg mixture and fry in hot lard until lightly browned, about 3 minutes per side. Serve hot.

12 servings. Each serving:

181 calories; 580 mg sodium; 130 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 5 grams carbohydrates; 11 grams protein; 0.20 gram fiber.