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For holiday grilling, take a page out of Tex-Mex cookbook

Addie Broyles
Beef short ribs are cooked in a pan over the coals, then braised in ancho-molasses sauce.

When Robb Walsh pushes his empty cart through the frigid meat aisle of the grocery store, the cookbook author and former restaurant critic does what many of us do.

"I buy what's on sale," he says.

Not always, of course, but Walsh says it doesn't make any sense to pay $2 a pound more for meat that's bound for carne asada when there's a great deal on rib-eye steaks. Walsh is a realist who knows that this Fourth of July weekend (or any weekend, for that matter), what we throw on the grill has as much to do with what's in our pockets as what our taste buds are craving.

Meat of nearly every cut and provenance is the focus of Walsh's new book, "The Tex-Mex Grill and Backyard Barbacoa Cookbook" ($18.99, Broadway Books), which is part Tex-Mex history and part grilling how-to. In the book, Walsh blends stories of chuckwagon cooks, tailgating grillmasters, taqueria owners and restaurant owners with recipes for dishes like fajitas, San Antonio bean burgers, Perini Ranch rib-eyes, tacos al pastor and armadillo eggs (bacon-wrapped, cheese-filled jalapenos, for the uninitiated) that, if you've lived in Texas long enough, are certain to strike a patriotic chord in your belly.

The economics of food, especially meat, have always played a big role in Tex-Mex. He has now dedicated two books to exploring and, in many cases, defending, the food that Walsh calls "America's oldest regional cuisine." Tejano cooks have been turning less-than-desirable cuts of meat into specialties like carne asada and Texas-style barbacoa (traditionally made with cow head) since long before there was a backlash against the "ugly duckling" of regional foods.

Walsh calls "The Tex-Mex Grill and Backyard Barbacoa Cookbook" the sequel to "The Tex-Mex Cookbook," the 2004 book that established him as the authority on Tex-Mex and its principal defender.

"Vilifying Tex-Mex makes you less of a food critic than a food bigot," he says. The pursuit of "authentic" Mexican food often comes at the expense of a cuisine that has been consumed and celebrated for longer than most people realize. "Everybody gets a free pass to attack Tejanos," he says.

You can't dismiss an entire cuisine based on what's in vogue today, he says. "Look at the Martinez family (who opened El Original in 1924 and Matt's El Rancho in 1952) in Austin. They have been making this food for four generations." Besides, "if you take all the Tex-Mex food out of a Mexican restaurant, people start whining."

Walsh, who recently stepped down after 10 years as the restaurant critic of the Houston Press, is jumping further into the Tex-Mex fray by announcing plans to open what he's calling a "vintage" Tex-Mex eatery in Houston with Bryan Caswell and Bill Floyd, the team behind Houston restaurants Reef and Stella Sola. The as-yet-unnamed restaurant is slated to open early next year near the intersection of Westheimer Road and Montrose Boulevard.

"Bryan and I are very much on the same page of what we want to do," he says. Tacos without any preformed taco shells, cheese enchiladas with chile con carne, migas, margaritas and, yes, the much-maligned fajitas, which Walsh calls the heart of modern Tex-Mex.

"Fajitas weren't actually Mexican, of course, but at least they represented authentic Tejano cuisine," Walsh writes in "Tex-Mex Grill." "Texas-Mexicans didn't eat cheese enchiladas in chili gravy at home, but they did eat fajitas." Walsh knows as well as anyone who has cooked fajitas that skirt steak is nearly impossible to get tender. In a chapter dedicated to beef cuts and fajita meat, Walsh suggests using sirloin flap, chuck steak, flatiron steaks cut from top blade steaks, hanger steaks, tri-tip steaks that are butterflied twice and boneless short ribs that are cut until thin strips instead of skirt steak when cooking fajitas at home. (If you have a hard time finding a prepackaged version of a specific cut of meat you want, talk with the butcher behind the counter, Walsh says. Grocery stores only package and display the most popular cuts of meat, so many of the hard-to-find cuts are available, but they just aren't prewrapped in plastic.)

The biggest tip he has for people who grill at home is to use a digital meat thermometer. "Everybody figures that if you were really good, you wouldn't need the thermometer," he says. But if you use a thermometer, you never have to guess when your meat is done. "Nobody wants to hear that, but it just makes grilling foolproof."

Like many food professionals, Walsh finds a happy medium between raw and the temperature that the U.S. Department of Agriculture says meat needs to reach. (The agriculture department has created the creatively named site that lists recommended internal temperatures as well as other food safety tips.) Cooking meats such as hamburger or steak medium rare is a calculated risk he's willing to take, but when he's cooking for others, especially children, he's more likely to bring the food closer to the recommended temperature. But, he points out, you'll never know the temperature of your meat at all until you start using a thermometer.; 912-2504

Beef Short Ribs in Ancho-Molasses Sauce

The key to this recipe is to start the ribs in a roasting pan; turning them in the melted tallow will crisp them up. It's like frying and smoking them at the same time. Let them get well-done before you add the hot braising liquid.

6 beef short ribs (square cut, about 3 pounds total)

2 Tbsp. Tex-Mex grill blend (see note below)

2 ancho chiles, stemmed and seeded

12 ounces cane sugar-sweetened root beer

1 Tbsp. vegetable oil

1/2 onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1 cup molasses

Light about 25 charcoal briquettes in a chimney and prepare the grill with the coals on one side only. Rub the ribs with the seasoning blend and place them in a roasting pan. Put the pan on the grill over medium-hot coals and turn the ribs when they start to sizzle.

Continue cooking in the dish for 1 hour, turning to caramelize on all sides. Move the pan to the cool side of the grill if the meat begins to burn or stick.

Tear the ancho chiles into pieces and combine with the root beer in a saucepan over medium heat. Simmer until the chiles soften, about 15 minutes. Heat the oil in a skillet and add the onion. Cook until softened, about five minutes. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Add the root beer and chile mixture and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer.

Add more wood and charcoal to the grill if needed. When the ribs are well browned, pour the molasses over each rib, turning to coat. Then add the hot root beer-chile mixture to the pan. Place the pan over hot coals so it simmers.

Cover the grill and allow the ribs to smoke and simmer for another hour, turning often. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and allow to steam for 30 minutes. Remove the pan from the grill and put the ribs in a serving dish. Stir the braising liquid and molasses in the pan together and pour over the ribs. (You can pour the sauce in a gravy separator and pour off some of the fat if you want.)

Serve immediately with warmed flour tortillas, chopped onions, cilantro and refried beans. Makes about 11/2 pounds of meat.

(Note: To make an all-purpose grill blend, combine 4 Tbsp. sea salt, 3 Tbsp. powdered chile of your choice - in this case chipotles, 2 Tbsp. dried granulated garlic, 2 Tbsp. coursely ground black pepper, 1 Tbsp. ground thyme, 1 tsp. ground coriander and 1 tsp. ground cumin. Store in a spice jar or baby food jar.)

Coffee-Chipotle BBQ Sauce

Cowboy cooks never threw away the leftover breakfast coffee; they recycled it into recipes like this one.

1 Tbsp. oil

2 cups diced yellow onion

7 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup ketchup

1 cup chipotle chile paste (see note below)

1/2 cup strong coffee

1/2 cup Worchestershire sauce

1/3 cup packed brown sugar

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

11/2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard

2 tsp. kosher salt

In a large, heavy saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat and add the onion and garlic. Saute until they begin to soften. Add the ketchup and chile paste and saute for four minutes. Add all of the remaining ingredients, stir and simmer gently for 30 to 40 minutes. As the sauce thickens, stir more often so it does not scorch.

Remove the sauce from the heat and cool. Place in a blender and puree. Store in a container in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.

(Note: To make homemade chile paste, rinse a handful of dried chiles - in this case, chipotles - and slit each one with a sharp knife and remove and discard the seeds and stems. Place the peppers in a large saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil over high heat, reduce the heat and allow the peppers to soften in the simmering water for 15 minutes. Remove the softened peppers and place in the container of a blender, along with about 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. Cover and start blending on low speed, increasing to high speed as the puree becomes combined.)

Tex-Mex Fajita Marinade

Pineapple juice and soy sauce are the basis of the standard Tex-Mex restaurant fajita marinade. It makes measuring easy if you start with a whole bottle of soy sauce. You need about a cup of marinade for each pound of meat.

2 cups pineapple juice

2 cups (or one 500 milliliter bottle) soy sauce

3 limes

4 cloves garlic, minced

Combine the pineapple juice and soy sauce in a large mixing bowl. Wash the limes and zest them, adding the lime zest to the juice and soy sauce mixture. Cut the limes in half after zesting and squeeze the juice into the bowl. Throw the lime halves in the bowl, too. Add the garlic. Pour over meat and allow to marinate for at least two hours before cooking.

- From 'The Tex-Mex Grill and Backyard Barbacoa Cookbook' by Robb Walsh ($18.99, Broadway Books)

Other grilling tips

• If you want to heat tortillas, caramelize onions or fry bacon, invest in a cast iron comal or flat top that creates a flat cooking surface on top of your grill.

• Barbecue or basting sauces that contain sweet ingredients will burn, so don't put them on the meat until the end. Oil- and vinegar-based mop sauces are fine for basting during cooking.

• If cooking with charcoal, use a charcoal starter chimney instead of starter fluid. The chemical-filled fluid will impart a flavor to whatever you're grilling.

• Don't be afraid to experiment with woods such as mesquite, hickory, maple or pecan. If you're just starting out with either wood chips or small logs, you can place a small amount of wood next to already-lit charcoal to see how the smoke from the wood affects the food on the grill.