(Oct. 25) Mention that you serve Southwest cuisine and guests’ eyes likely will brighten with visions of fajitas, tortillas, guacamole and perhaps chiles rellenos. They also may drool at the thought of a signature zesty cheese sauce to cover all.

The lesson is that, whether or not you consider those items a part of Southwest cuisine, it’s a good idea to include them on the menu to fit your customers’ expectations. Then, go from there with a good understanding of what the regional-cuisine-gone-mainstream is all about.

IN THE BEGINNING

Santa Fe, N.M., is considered the birthplace of Southwest cuisine, where the early natives cultivated chilies, beans, corn and squash, says Rocky Durham, chef, instructor and syndicated columnist. He teaches at the Santa Fe School of Cooking.

The early settlers ground the corn into meal and made tortillas — with no outside influences until the Spaniards arrived in the 15th century and brought their European cooking traditions, which is when enchiladas were introduced, Durham says.

It’s debatable whether Texas falls into the Southwest. While many believe that it does, Lois Ellen Frank thinks not. She is a cultural anthropology expert, chef, author and photographer from Santa Fe.

Her area of focus is traditional foods of the Southwest Indian nations in three divisions: dating back 10,000 years; 500 years ago when the Spanish came; and when immigrants arrived after the U.S. government started subsidizing such commodity foods to the Indians as flour, cheese, lard, sugar and coffee. She defines the Southwest as Southern Colorado, Southern Utah, Arizona and New Mexico.

In addition to chilies, beans, corn and squash, Frank adds tomatoes, cactus and black walnuts to the list of native ingredients to original Southwest cuisine.

METHODS THAT MATTER

To summarize the flavor of the food type, Durham says, “It has a touched-by-fire quality. … It’s kind of subconscious. It’s the blackening of the tomato, the caramelization of squash or chilies that are fire roasted or grilled over mesquite.”

Natives to Southwest cooking used hornos or earthen ovens shaped like a beehive and placed their corn or meat inside, sealed it and let it roast overnight, Frank says.

Or they dug a pit in which they burned wood until it turned to embers. Then they added corn and sealed the hole with the corn stalks and let it steam overnight. They ate the steamed corn the next morning or dried it and added the kernels to soups and stews or ground it into cornmeal.

Corn flour predates wheat flour, Frank says. With it, the SouthwestIndians used to, and some still do, make atole drink — a liquid porridge of corn similar to grits.

CHILI REVOLUTION

Like others, Nevins goes out of her way to include chilies on her Southwest menu — literally. Each year over Labor Day, she travels from Connecticut to Hatch, N.M., the chili capital of the world, to the Hatch Chili Festival. She buys and packs 600-800 pounds of fresh green chilies into duffle bags and hauls them back on the airplane. She immediately roasts them on the grill, places them in zipper-lock bags, freezes them and pulls them out as needed for recipes until she depletes the supply up to five months later.

While chilies quietly grew and were consumed in what is now Mexico City and later in New Mexico, they didn’t gain worldwide popularity until Christopher Columbus arrived in Mexico and discovered them. He took some back to Europe with him and incorrectly named them chili peppers. “Technically, it’s not a pepper. A pepper is tree-based,” Frank says.

It’s the wide use of chilies that makes Southwest cuisine known for its heat, and perhaps for its loyal following.

Chilies have an addictive quality in that they release endorphins in the body, which go to the brain and cause a feeling of euphoria, Frank says, adding that chocolate and exercise are the other two things that cause the same effect.

SPREAD IT AROUND

Taking Southwest cuisine to modern taste buds, Durham credits two Santa Fe chefs: Mark Miller, owner-chef of Coyote Café and Mark Kiffin, owner-chef of The Compound Restaurant. “They are doing contemporary renditions of authentic native cuisine using the indigenous ingredients and classical configurations of food and pairing them with French techniques,” he says.

Frank believes it is the ancientness of the land and the food base that dictates the cuisine. “You can take any of these ingredients and go anywhere you want and it’s still Southwest,” she says.

Last winter, at Harbor View Hotel on Martha’s Vineyard, Edgartown, Mass., executive chef Ryan Hardy decided to turn Thursday nights into Southwest night at the upscale restaurant that normally serves locally sourced food.

It was the place to be on Thursday nights as the restaurant frequently went from serving 35 covers on Wednesday night to 150 covers Thursday night and back down to 15 covers Friday night, Hardy says.

He sought to recreate the classics he was familiar with from working with Miller at the Coyote Café.

Besides the familiar quesadillas, enchiladas and hot tamales, the restaurant served chipotle-marinated shrimp with corn cakes, honey butter, salsa fresca and guacamole, which was hugely popular, Hardy says.

From past experience he learned that the secrets are in using great chilies and getting a grip on sauces.

He made the water-based chipotle marinade-sauce with chipotles, garlic, onions and a number of spices and herbs, which he slowly simmered together and pureed. “You have to have a good touch with sauces,” he says.