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Published: Tuesday, 5/6/2008

True Texas Food: Enjoy the classics, cowboy cuisine, Tex-Mex and Lose Star chic

BY KATHIE SMITH
BLADE FOOD EDITOR

DALLAS In this city deep in the heart of the Lone Star state, there s enough authentic Texas fare to suit anyone s taste. It can be as simple as classics like a waffle cooked in the shape of the state of Texas or a slice of pecan pie.

There s also plenty of cowboy cooking, Tex-Mex cuisine, and Texas chic.

Historic Texas foods are as diverse as the immigrants who brought them the Germans, Czechs, and Poles with their sausage making and meat smoking, the Irish Stew that was a one-pot meal that cowboys adopted, and Cajun and Creole cookery from Louisiana. Add to that plentiful beef from West Texas, the bounty of the Gulf Coast, and South Texas foods from Mexico and Spain.

At a food media seminar and dinner held before the 43rd Pillsbury Bake-Off, cookbook author Robb Walsh explained the food of Texas by using a dinner menu that included New Zion Ribs with Ancho Barbecue Sauce, chicken-fried steaks with black pepper gravy, and sweet potatoes baked in cane syrup. Authentic desserts had a Tex-Mex flavor with Mesquite Piloncillo Cookies and Loma Linda Pralines.

Sweet potatoes baked in cane syrup. Sweet potatoes baked in cane syrup.
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Mr. Walsh, author of The Texas Cowboy Cookbook (Broadway, $17.95) and The Tex-Mex Cookbook (Broadway Books, $17.95), says barbecue was brought to East Texas by Southerners. Ribs in Texas are as likely to be beef ribs as pork ribs, like the New Zion Ribs (a recipe from Mr. Walsh s Legends of Texas Barbecue Cookbook). For barbecue, lean, range-fed beef would dry out unless it was continuously basted. A cotton mop was the basting brush and the basting liquid was usually cooking oil with spices and a little vinegar.

Chuck wagon cooks simmered beans and other long-cooking foods in cast-iron Dutch ovens.

Texas Chili has a long history. In 1893 at the Chicago World s Fair there was a Chili Queen stand, he said. In the days of the Chili Queens in San Antonio, chili con carne was a stew cooked in a Mexican clay pot called a casuela, he writes.

Texas cowboy cooks began preparing a browned and simmered version when the Dutch oven appeared after the Civil War. Today, they add spicy canned tomatoes with roasted green chilies. There are no beans in this chili.

Cane sugar was used to make cane syrup. Sweet Potatoes Baked in Cane Syrup are peeled and sliced and layered with cane syrup and sugar and then baked.

Chicken fried steak is a round steak pounded to varying degrees of tenderness. There are three styles, Mr. Walsh told the group: 1. Dip in flour; 2.) dip in flour, egg wash, and then seasoning flour similar to fried chicken, and 3.schnitzel-style by dipping in flour, egg wash, and then a mix of cracker crumbs and seasoned flour.

Tex-Mex is American regional cooking, and is different from Mexican cooking. Chili con carne is not a Mexican dish. It s a Texas creation.

The popular chili con carne was seasoned with dried ancho chile which was available only once a year. In the late 1800s William Gebhardt of San Antonio marketed bottles of chili powder.

Gebhardt Chili Powder was made with ancho chilies, cumin (comino) and other spices, Mr. Walsh said. William Gebhardt wrote the first Tex-Mex cookbooks (about 1917). But even Tex-Mex has changed to include fajitas and margaritas.

According to the Food Lovers Companion, Tex-Mex encompasses food based on the combined cultures of Texas and Mexico. It includes burritos, nachos, and tacos.

The Food Encyclopedia says the combination of enchiladas, tacos, and burritos became the standard while chimichangas were invented in the 1950s at El Charro Cafe in Tuscon. Nachos (with the melted cheese) were supposedly served at a concession stand at the Texas State Fair in Dallas in 1966. The fajita was made popular at Ninfa s in Houston in 1973 as tacos al carbon.

As for those Mexican baked goods, Mesquite Piloncillo Cookies are made with a mesquite flour (from drying and grinding the beans of a mesquite tree). It has a sweet malted flavor that tastes good with the raw brown sugar of the Mexican piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar is sold in a hard cone that must be grated or dissolved in hot liquid).

Mr. Walsh credited the pecan praline as a cooking style that came from Louisiana, where it was influenced by the French who made the candy with almonds instead of pecans.

Using this rich food history and tasty traditions, chefs throughout the state of Texas are creating fabulous interpretations.

Beginning in the 1980s, Chef Dean Fearing pioneered the New Southwest cuisine that became famous during his two decades at the Mansion on Turtle Creek. He recently opened his signature restaurant in the Ritz Carlton Hotel called Fearing s, where members of the media were served a five-course dinner.

The diversity of the menu is an example of Texas chic with the first course of Flash Seared Five-Spice Hamachi with Avocado Wasabi Cream, Spicy Ponzu, and Jade Basil Salad. Then came a signature item, Dean s Tortilla Soup with South of the Border Flavors.

Call this dish elevated Tex-Mex or the new Texas Southwestern cuisine: Barbecued Shrimp Taco with Mango-Pickled Red Onion Salad and Smoky Citrus Vinaigrette offered five to six bites of a bit of spice and great flavor.

Utilizing a Western cut of meat, the entree was Maple Black Peppercorn Soaked Buffalo Tenderloin on Anson Mills Jalapeno Grits and Crispy Butternut Squash Taquito. The buffalo was rare but so tender and perfectly seared, you would have thought it was beef. Think of the marriage of Southern grits and a Tex-Mex taquito with a game meat like buffalo for the ultimate in Texas food.

For dessert, Dark Chocolate Cake with Bananas Foster Sauce and Peanut Brittle was a little bit of New Orleans thrown in for good measure.

You won t find taquito in the Food Lover s Companion or the Food Encyclopedia, but I did find a recipe in The Texas Cowboy Kitchen by Grady Spears with June Naylor (Andrews McMeel, $19.95).

Mr. Spears has created cowboy menus for restaurants he co-owned in Texas and Beverly Hills as well as for the Bush family at the Texas Governor s Mansion. He includes a recipe for Matt s Famous Austin-Style Chalupas. Matt Martinez, Jr., is an owner of Tex-Mex restaurants in Austin and Dallas.

In recent trips to Texas, I ve discovered Czech kolaches (both savory and sweet fruit filled pastries) in little shops along the highway. I m crazy about the empanadas you can find in Houston tapas restaurants. Texas tamales are great, and there is nowhere in America where you can find better braised (and tender) quail than that served at the Driskill Hotel in Austin.

Contact Kathie Smith at: food@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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