Texas is a big state. It covers more than 276,000 square miles, in 10 distinct climatic regions, 14 diverse soil regions, and 11 wildly divergent ecological regions. And in each, you’ll find an eclectic group of people who love their particular patch with a passion, whether it’s in the lush farmland of the Brazos Valley, the salty towns along the Gulf Coast, the rock-strewn Hill Country, the vast, arid lands of the High Plains, or sun-baked South Texas.
It’s a very exciting time to be cooking in Texas. This book offers up a collection of new and classic Texas recipes and tells the stories of the people—the farmers, ranchers, shrimpers, cheesemakers, winemakers, and chefs—who inspired so many of them and who are changing the taste of Texas food. It’s all about terroir, a French term that originally applied to wine but has become more broadly used to describe “a taste of place.” It refers to the scientific factors—climate, soil, and so on—that affect the way living things grow and thrive but also the cultural conditions that determine the unique flavor of the final product. Simply put, one of the things I discovered in writing this book is that the Texas terroir produces a taste like that nowhere else.
People in every state have begun to embrace the idea that locally grown food tastes better. The agriculturally inclined men and women of Texas have responded in kind (though in some cases they were there all along). In the Hill Country where dairy cows and goats range on green pastures, artisan cheesemakers collect milk from their herds to make a variety of exceptional cheeses. In and around the little town of Medina, a vital apple industry has grown up based on fruit from dwarf trees.
In South Texas, a thriving olive industry has taken root, with new orchards and tasty new varieties of olives being planted every year.
On the coast, oystermen have begun selling their catch by appellation, charging premium prices for oysters from the best reefs. This practice is allowing them to earn a decent living.
Humanely harvested game from Broken Arrow Ranch is sought by chefs from around the country, and local lamb, bison, rabbit, quail, and duck are now as likely as beef to be on the menu at the state’s best restaurants.
One of the most exciting agricultural industries in Texas today is the wine business. There are almost 300 wineries, in all corners of the state. While the modern Texas wine industry is young compared with those of Europe and California, it’s catching up fast. Viticulturalists and winemakers are experimenting with grapes from around the world, especially those native to the Mediterranean. Texas actually encompasses such a large area—equivalent to several of the wine-producing regions of the Mediterranean—that winemakers have the flexibility to produce a wide variety of wines and wine styles, from Spain’s Tempranillo to Germany’s Riesling. Grapes that originated in southern France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Sardinia are flourishing in the Texas heat and growing in abundant supply. For most winemakers, these are the grapes of the Texas wine industry’s future.
Many wineries are creating great wines from native American grapes, with blanc du bois, which thrives in Texas, becoming increasing popular in producing many styles of wine, including Madeira. Hybrid grapes are being grown, too, a cross between European Vitis vinifera and native American grapes, such as chambourcin, Salado, Lenoir (or black Spanish, or Jacquez), and Cynthiana (or Norton). As the right grapes are being grown in the right conditions, we’re starting to best competitors from other states and countries.
Thirty years ago no one would have believed that Texas might someday become known for its wine. But it certainly is a true statement today, and one that provides encouragement for the younger, but rapidly growing spirits movement in the state and the resurgence of the craft beer industry, which actually dates to the mid-1800s.
The wineries featured in this book are scattered throughout the various chapters. I consulted with the winemakers, asking them to pair their wines with recipes from the chapter in which their feature occurs or, in some instances, with dishes from other chapters that particularly begged for a wine from that winery. Wine pairing is an art, and one that is personal, so the pairings are merely suggestions or starting points rather than precise prescriptions to be followed to the letter.
The growth of the wine industry doesn’t mean that Texas and Texans have given up beef. Or chili. Or even ruby red grapefruit or San Saba pecans. Far from it. The old foodways, from African American barbecues, to German-style sausage shops, to Mexican taco carts and Czech bakeries, are thriving still. The difference is that some of us now buy grass-fed beef for our chili. We shop for it—and most of the rest of our food—every week at our local farmers’ market. And it tastes better.
Sandy and I traveled thousands of miles while researching this book. Some of the people you’ll meet in these pages were old friends; others were strangers who welcomed us into their lives and work. They taught us how grasses and grains differ, and when a grape is ripe for harvest, or how to separate the curds from the whey.
Many of the places we visited are family-run, even multigenerational, farms or food businesses. Many were started by retirees or refugees from the corporate world, finally doing what they really want to do. It shows. These folks don’t sell anything they don’t put on their own tables. They don’t take shortcuts. They treat their animals well. Many of their businesses are certified organic, an expensive and bureaucratic process. The hard part was trying to fit in as many as we could—there are many more. We hope you’ll find them as inspiring as we did. What I learned in writing this book proves the time-honored adage that what grows together, goes together.
Finger Foods and First course
Finger foods fit the Texas lifestyle, where we “graze” at many social functions. The host or hostess will arrange small finger foods or dips around the party area, and folks just mosey leisurely around the room, selecting from the many delicious offerings, then move on to another dish and another conversation. Some dishes are served hot in a chafing dish or perhaps a Crock-Pot if it’s a casual get-together. Others may be served cold or even in bowls over ice, like boiled, peeled shrimp with red cocktail sauce, long a Texas party favorite. Still others might be served at room temperature. But there’s one common thread that you will encounter woven into finger foods at Texas parties that stems from the Mexican heritage of our foods. They all have a little zing of spice lurking inside. Sometimes it’s quite subtle, kind of like a warm glow in the back of your throat after you swallow. But then, the spice can be quite an up-front hit, as in many of our beloved salsas and pico de gallo.
Often having friends over for dinner in Texas involves some dishes that will be cooked outside on the pit or grill and some cooked inside in the kitchen, so finger foods will simply be set out on the kitchen counters or island as some of the guests congregate in the kitchen. Outside, some good smoked sausage might be grilled up, sliced, and simply set out on a plate for those gathered around the grill to enjoy as the main course cooks slowly.
I experiment a lot with finger foods and often turn them into first courses for a seated meal by adding some garnishes or other flavor and/or texture elements. Some work fine as first courses just the way they are, only served on individual plates. Let the seasons dictate first courses. In the spring, you might serve first courses created from fresh vegetables and leafy greens and fresh berries. In the summer, first courses might contain fresh fruits and shrimp and crabmeat. In the fall and winter, Gulf oysters are at their salty best, so first courses at my house in the colder months will be a celebration of both raw and cooked oyster half-shell dishes or other cooked oyster dishes.
A Simple Mexican Table Salsa
I probably use this zesty, vibrant-tasting simple salsa as much as any other condiment. It will forever be named after my friend and fabulous chef Cecilio Solis, who created it. However, it makes a great flavor addition to many culinary creations that need a little jazz. Or just serve a bowl of it with your favorite corn tortilla chips.
Makes 2 cups.
- 1 can (15 ounces) plum tomatoes and their juice
- 1 cup loosely packed cilantro tender top sprigs and leaves
- 2 large garlic cloves, peeled and trimmed
- 1½ tablespoons chopped chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
- Kosher salt, to taste
Combine all ingredients in the container of a high-speed blender. Beginning on low, begin to puree the mixture, gradually increasing speed to high. Puree until very smooth. Refrigerate in a container with tight-fitting lid until ready to use.
This salsa is definitely a seasonal summer dish, when green tomatoes are available. So don’t be tempted to make it using red tomatoes. It won’t be the same. Just get your fill of it in the summer!
Makes about 4 to 5 cups.
- 3 medium-sized green tomatoes, preferably homegrown, coarsely chopped
- 4 large tomatillos, husks removed and discarded, scrubbed well, and coarsely chopped
- 2 to 3 jalapeños, stems removed, coarsely chopped, including seeds, depending on desired level of heat
- 3 small garlic cloves, peeled and trimmed
- 3 medium-sized ripe Hass avocados, peeled, pitted, and cut into medium dice
- 6 large cilantro sprigs
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lime juice
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt, or more
- 1½ cups sour cream
- Good-quality white corn tortilla chips
Combine the green tomatoes, tomatillos, jalapeños, and garlic in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring the mixture to a boil—the tomatoes will provide the liquid—stirring often to prevent sticking. Reduce heat to a bare simmer and cook for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring frequently. The tomatoes and tomatillos will be completely broken down and pulpy. Remove from heat and set aside to cool.
Combine the green tomato mixture with the avocados, cilantro, lime juice, and salt in the work bowl of a food processor fitted with the steel blade. Process until smooth. Turn out into a bowl and whisk in the sour cream. Taste for salt, adjusting as desired, but remember that salt is nature’s natural flavor enhancer. So if the salsa tastes a little flat, then add a bit more salt, and it should come to life. Refrigerate until ready to serve. Serve with corn tortilla chips.
Chorizo con Queso Dip with Homemade Tortilla Chips
Like guacamole, don’t even think about having a party in Texas without queso, or you might be mistaken for a Yankee. Don’t try to fancy it up by using some gourmet variety of real cheese. It won’t be Texas chile con queso if you do. Just use plain old pasteurized processed cheese—the kind that comes in rectangular blocks. Trust me, I am an ingredient purist, but I don’t mess with a Texas tradition like chile con queso!
- 6 ounces Mexican, bulk-style chorizo
- 1 pound pasteurized processed cheese
- 1 medium onion, chopped
- 1 large garlic clove, minced
- 2 teaspoons dark chili powder
- 1 can Ro-Tel Diced Tomatoes & Green Chilies
- ½ cup evaporated milk
Begin by cooking the chorizo. If you can only find links of chorizo, squeeze it out of the casings. Place the sausage in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Cook, breaking up the sausage into small, crumbly bits with the back of a wooden spoon, until browned. The sausage will render a lot of fat as it cooks. Drain into a wire-mesh strainer, pressing down on the sausage to squeeze out as much fat as possible. Combine the sausage and all other dip ingredients in the top of a double boiler over simmering water. Cook, stirring often, until cheese has melted and mixture is creamy. Continue to cook for 20 more minutes.
Serve hot with tortilla chips. When I serve this dip at a “grazing” event, I will put it in a Crock-Pot if the event is informal, or a chafing dish if it’s classier.
Homemade Tortilla Chips:
- 6-inch thin flour tortillas, cut into 6 wedges
- Canola oil for deep-frying, heated to 350°F
Cut as many tortilla wedges as desired, but make enough for all of your guests to eat up that chile con queso. Fry the chips in batches, taking care not to crowd the oil. Cook just until they are crisp and light golden in color. Drain on absorbent paper towels set on a wire rack over a baking sheet. Lightly salt the chips and serve them warm. They’re best eaten the same day they are fried.